Supreme Court decision could impact city elections

Jun. 27, 2013 @ 05:44 PM

Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act has short-term and long-term implications for city elections, according to High Point legal officials.
High Point was among the local governments in several mostly Southern states that had to get U.S. Justice Department “preclearance” for any changes affecting City Council elections.
That meant that any adjustments to the boundaries of the six voting wards or to council terms of office or methods of election had to be approved by the Justice Department to make sure the changes didn’t discriminate against minority voters.
The requirement applied in states and localities that had historically suppressed minority voters. The high court ruled that imposing extra scrutiny on these areas was no longer justified under the criteria used when the Voting Rights Act was established in 1965.
For decades, two of High Point’s wards have been drawn in such a way that the election of a black council member from each was virtually assured. The court’s ruling could mean an end to this practice the next time council redraws the boundaries following the 2020 Census.
The city created the two “majority-minority” wards as part of the settlement of a Voting Rights Act lawsuit brought against High Point in the 1980s, according to former City Attorney Fred Baggett.
The late John Langford, a former High Point lawyer and council member, brought the suit, alleging that the city’s method of electing council members through an at-large system discriminated against black voters. A settlement was reached that established the current system of six council wards and two at-large seats. Wards 1 and 2 were constructed in such a way that more than 50 percent of the registered voters were black. Voters in the two wards have elected black council members since, including the current incumbents, Jeff Golden in Ward 1 and Foster Douglas in Ward 2.
Even with the preclearance requirement eliminated, the ward boundaries still have to comply with Voting Rights Act provisions that prohibit diluting minority voting strength.
“So, if you change the ward lines in a way that did that, you risk being sued by an individual or the Justice Department itself,” said Baggett, who now works for the city part-time as a legal advisor. “So, it’s still going to be a tricky, delicate decision.”
Under the ward maps the city adopted and the Justice Department approved prior to the 2012 election, the black voting age population was 52.61 percent in Ward 1 and 56.12 in Ward 2. The black percentage of registered voters was 62.01 percent in Ward 1 and 60.06 percent in Ward 2.
The next time the city goes through redistricting, the majorities in either ward could be reduced, or the council could go back to an all at-large system. The city wouldn’t need federal approval ahead of time to make such changes, but anyone who objected would still have legal recourse to challenge them.
“Now, the burden shifts to individuals or groups, so if they feel they have been discriminated against in any way regarding their voting rights, they can bring a lawsuit,” said City Attorney JoAnne Carlyle.
Tuesday’s ruling all but guarantees that High Point voters will get to weigh in next year on whether they want to change city elections from even- to odd-numbered years and institute a primary.
A bill pending in the N.C. General Assembly would authorize a referendum on this issue in November 2014. The bill is expected to be enacted by the legislature soon, Baggett said.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision, there is no need submit it to the Justice Department for approval, so it would become law immediately if it passes the legislature, he said.
Similarly, if the referendum passes next year, there would be no federal OK required to implement the election changes, which would take effect in 2017.