Black residents of Jones County, N.C., have struggled for years to ensure local representation, some say, but they hope that a new lawsuit will finally bring results. On Monday, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., joined with two law firms to bring a suit on behalf of black residents of Jones County, N.C. The lawsuit, filed in federal court, alleges that the county’s at-large voting system has systematically prevented black residents, who comprise almost one-third of the county, from electing the candidates of their choice to the county’s five-member Board of Commissioners. Since the five candidates receiving the most votes from across the county are elected to the board, the white majority can vote as a bloc to prevent black candidates from winning seats, the plaintiffs say. They argue that this election system has effectively sidelined the black community’s issues, since it is relatively easy to be elected without their votes. Instead, the plaintiffs propose creating single-member local districts, giving predominantly black neighborhoods a higher likelihood of electing their chosen candidate.
If litigation proves successful in Jones County, it could encourage civil rights organizations to more frequently press forward with smaller cases. And the creation of single-member districts is an important step, observers suggest – though they caution that ensuring effective representation requires more than just electing a given representative.
“They could draw single-member district boundaries that would, yes, guarantee the election of a black representative,” says Don Davison, a political science professor at Rollins College in Florida, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. “But if it only guarantees the election of a single black representative … even if they’ll have a seat at the table, will they have influence?”