By Emery P. Dalesio | Associated Press (Star News Online)
RALEIGH, N.C. – A lawsuit challenging a major feature of the 1965 Voting Rights Act used to overturn how local elections in the eastern North Carolina town of Kinston are conducted deserves a new look from lower court judges, a federal appeals court ruled Friday.
The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ordered that the fight over whether Kinston can hold nonpartisan elections deserves consideration, overturning a federal judge who dismissed the case last December.
The case involves a 2008 referendum by Kinston voters to establish nonpartisan local elections, a measure overwhemingly approved by town voters. Nonpartisan elections are common across North Carolina, but the U.S. Justice Department said the effect in Kinston would be to effectively deny black voters the chance to vote for candidates of their choice.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act allows the Justice Department to review election laws in places with a history of illegally hindering the voting rights of its citizens. That section of the law is most extensively applied in the South, where the entire states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas are covered, along with virtually all of Virginia and large sections of North Carolina.
The department argued that although blacks make up a majority of Kinston’s registered voters, they have been a minority of actual voters in a series of recent elections. Blacks are able to win elections in the town of about 23,000 because of a small but important segment of “crossover votes” from whites who vote straight-party Democrat tickets, the department contended.
The lawsuit filed in April 2010 by Stephen LaRoque and others contends that 2006 amendments to Section 5 in “erect a facially unconstitutional racial-preference scheme” which deserve a look into the merits of the argument, the appeals court said. LaRoque last November won re-election to the state House, where he served between 2003 and 2006.
“That is really fantastic news, for not just folks here in Kinston but all across the nation,” LaRoque said.
Michael Rosman of the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing LaRoque and the other plaintiffs in the case, said Friday’s ruling allows the group to make its argument that the 2006 changes unconstitutionally freeze Southern communities in the civil rights-era battles.
“It continues to subject certain states and localities to an onerous procedure for making any election changes based solely upon statistics and practices from the late `60s and early `70s,” said Rosman, the center’s general counsel.