The High Court, race and local elections
A Supreme Court decision later this year on a key provision of the Voting Rights Act could have broad implications for the future makeup of elected bodies such as High Point City Council, changing the way lines are set up for people to choose their representatives.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a challenge to parts of the act, passed in 1965 to address injustice against black voters because of the legacy of segregation. One aspect of the challenge involves the oversight by the U.S. Department of Justice over election changes in certain states and localities, such as 40 counties in North Carolina that include Guilford County.
Every 10 years, when district or ward lines are drawn by politicians for Congress, the N.C. General Assembly, Guilford County Board of Commissioners or High Point City Council, the Justice Department must sign off on the changes through a step known as preclearance. The Justice Department examines proposed new districts or wards to make sure the changes aren’t unfair to black voters or minority elected officials based on segregation’s legacy. The next round of redistricting would take place early next decade based on results of the 2020 U.S. census.
If the Supreme Court invalidates the Justice Department oversight, then state and local politicians wouldn’t have to directly consult with federal authorities when making district or ward line changes. Many civil rights activists worry this would allow a political backslide toward unfair treatment of minority voters and politicians.
“You could see a dramatic redrawing of district lines, not only at the state level but at the local level as well. That has far-reaching implications,” said Matthew DeSantis, professor of political science at Guilford Technical Community College.
Depending on the scope of the court’s ruling, the elimination of federal oversight could lead to whittling away majority black districts or wards, DeSantis said.
“You could see the minority voting base being systematically watered down through spreading them out to a number of political districts,” DeSantis said.
A Supreme Court decision invalidating the Justice Department direct oversight would shift the burden of proof in redistricting cases, said John Dinan, professor of political science at Wake Forest University.
Now, states and communities covered by the act can’t make changes until prior approval by the Justice Department.
“The burden is on you, for the most part, to prove you are not acting in a way that’s inconsistent with the Voting Rights Act,” Dinan said.
But if the Supreme Court does away with the direct oversight, “the burden is on the Justice Department or another plaintiff to prove that something is having a discriminatory effect,” Dinan said.
The court decision could have a ripple effect locally in the coming years.
Of the six wards on High Point City Council, two are drawn as wards with a majority of black voters. They are Ward 1, represented by first-term Councilman Jeff Golden, and Ward 2, served by veteran Councilman Foster Douglas. Mayor Bernita Sims, who last year became the city’s first black mayor, established her political base in part by serving nearly 10 years as the Ward 1 councilmember.
Of the eight districts for the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, two are drawn as districts with a majority of black voters. One of those districts is represented by Democrat Bruce Davis of High Point.
Sims said she worries that invalidating sections of the Voting Rights Act could lead to a setback for minority voters and candidates.
“I think minorities are being elected because it is in place,” Sims told The High Point Enterprise.
One result of a Supreme Court decision striking down preclearance could be a move to return to strictly at-large races, said High Point Councilwoman Becky Smothers.
“When you look at the changes that have occurred in residential patterns in High Point, it’s why it’s so hard to create those districts now,” said Smothers, a former mayor.
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The U.S. Supreme Court will issue a ruling later this year on a challenge to provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The justices heard arguments Wednesday in the case of Shelby County, Ala., v. Attorney General Eric Holder.
Sections of the act require states with a history of discrimination against blacks and other minorities to get approval from the federal government before making changes in the way elections are held.
The act applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in North Carolina, including Guilford County. Of the 40 counties in North Carolina covered by the act, two are in the Piedmont — Guilford and Rockingham counties.