In 2008 the majority-black town of Kinston, North Carolina, voted almost 2-to-1 to make its local elections nonpartisan. Nine months later, as the measure was set to kick in, the U.S. Justice Department blocked it.
The department’s reason: The plan would reduce the power of black voters. The dispute in the town of 22,000 spawned a lawsuit that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court as a potential test case for the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The landmark law was enacted to combat the discrimination that had kept blacks away from Southern polling booths for generations and has been used in this year’s elections to challenge Republican-backed voter- identification laws. The suit takes aim at one of the 1965 law’s core provisions: the power it gives the federal government to block changes in local election rules, like the one in Kinston, in 16 states.
“The people wanted it, and we got one bureaucrat in D.C. that says, ‘No, you can’t have it,’” B.J. Murphy, Kinston’s white Republican mayor, said over the clinking of coffee cups at Christopher’s cafe on Queen Street, the town’s main road and unofficial dividing line separating its mostly black east side from its largely white west side.
The Justice Department has since taken the unusual step of withdrawing its objection, clearing the way for nonpartisan elections this year while complicating the legal case. The Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which works to limit governmental power, is pressing ahead with its suit against the department and asking the high court to invalidate part of the Voting Rights Act.