N.C. Town Examines U.S. Ruling On Voting Rights

fromWHQR

Officials in Kinston, N.C., are sorting out a ruling from the U.S. Justice Department that says candidates in local elections must list their party affiliations. Last year, voters in the predominantly black city did away with the practice. But federal government lawyers say past elections have elected fewer blacks than would be expected given the population, and that is a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

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In North Carolina, the rural town of Kinston is at odds with the Justice Department. Its a voting rights issue. And it hinges on whether blacks running for office in that predominantly African-American city need to identify themselves as Democrats on the ballot in order to attract votes from white Democrats.

Catherine Welch from member station WHQR has this story.

CATHERINE WELCH: Railroad tracks dotted with abandoned factories crisscross this town of 22,000. Throughout the area, campaign signs crowd intersections vying for attention in Kinstons heated mayors race. The signs dont mention the candidates political affiliation, but the ballot does. That wasnt the plan a year ago when Kinston residents approved a referendum to remove party affiliation from the ballot.

Mr. STEPHEN LAROQUE (Republican State Lawmaker): A year ago we wouldve had the same three candidates, but they wouldnt have had any initials beside their names. They wouldve running on their names, on their ideas, on their ideals, as opposed to running because youre a Democrat or a Republican or unaffiliated.

WELCH: Stephen LaRoque, a former Republican state lawmaker is shepherding the movement for nonpartisan elections. Kinston falls in an area covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which ensures black voters are not discriminated against at the polls. So the Justice Department has to sign off on any changes to city elections. And it ruled in August that elections must remain partisan.

Mr. LAROQUE: The very idea that an unelected bureaucrat in Washington, D.C. can overturn a valid election in Kinston, North Carolina, quite frankly, is un-American.

WELCH: LaRoque also points out residents in this mostly black city overwhelmingly approved nonpartisan elections last year, when a record number turned out to vote for the first black president. City councilman William Barker says there couldve been confusion.

Mr. WILLIAM BARKER (Councilman, Kinston): Some people have stated, well, they may not have understood what they were voting for. I dont know what people thought when they went into the voting booth. All I know is what the end vote was.

WELCH: The Justice Department declined an interview for this story. Its been 15 years since it last used the Voting Rights Act to block a local nonpartisan election. But the Justice Department based this decision on a statistical analysis showing white Democrats in Kinston would vote for a white Republican instead of a black Democrat.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

WELCH: At Christophers, a popular lunch spot, diners cram in for southern cooking. While stirring a bowl of vegetable soup, (unintelligible) conflicted on the issue.

Unidentified Man #1: Im just like, whether theyre white or black, were still out here to do the best job. I guess we should be there.

WELCH: But on the other hand, he doesnt think white residents would vote for black candidates without party labels. A few tables over, Rosa Ann Cheney(ph) disagrees.

Ms. ROSA ANN CHENEY: Maybe some people might think that the majority knows.

WELCH: City councilman Robbie Swinson is black and a Democrat. He disagrees with the Justice Department and says Kinston residents dont look at color when considering a candidate.

Mr. ROBBIE SWINSON (Councilman, Kinston): I think I got a mixture of votes when I ran. And I think I will continue only to get a mixture of votes.

WELCH: Stephen LaRoque, whos pushing for the nonpartisan elections in Kinston, says hes willing to take this to the Supreme Court and let justices decide how residents of this small North Carolina city can vote.

For NPR News, Im Catherine Welch.

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