Another Victory in Pitt County: US DOJ rejects electoral changes to School Board

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Last summer, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill to reduce the number of district-based seats on the Pitt County School Board from 12 to 6, and to add a new at-large seat. Because of its long history of race discrimination in voting, Pitt County is one of 40 counties in the state subject to Section Five of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 requires covered jurisdictions receive preclearance from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) of any proposed voting changes, to ensure that minority voting rights are not harmed by the change.

On April 30, 2012, the Justice Department rejected Pitt County Schools' preclearance submission, specially citing the retrogressive impact and discriminatory effect of the voting changes. Regarding the proposed addition of an at-large seat, DOJ said “Given the racially polarized voting patterns in the county and the fact that African Americans have never elected a candidate of choice to a county-wide office, the at-large seat” discriminates against African American voters. The Department also found that the new voting model would reduce African American representation to only one seat, and that the proposed process to implement these changes “would have the consequence of simultaneously eliminating the seats of two of the three current black board members.”

DOJ also highlighted that the new election legislation departed from normal procedures, noting that the school board never requested the change in voting method or structure. Instead, the state senator that introduced the bill told investigators that he brought the bill forward after receiving a proposal from the local chamber of commerce. The proposal also ignored several alternative methods to reduce the size of the board that would not have had a discriminatory impact on voting rights. Read DOJ's denial of preclearance (PDF).

Following the school board’s request for preclearance, the Center, on behalf of our clients in the ongoing Pitt County school desegregation case (Everett v. Pitt County Schools), submitted a formal objection to the voting change. The Center reminded DOJ that the school system remains under a federal court order to desegregate, which imposes an affirmative duty on the district to eliminate the vestiges of race discrimination. Reducing the number of districted seats, the Center argued, would abridge the black community’s ability to elect and effectively engage school decision-makers. Enacted in the wake of the districts adoption of a racially resegregative student assignment plan, these voting changes compounded the marginalization our clients experience while urging the school board to meet its desegregation obligations. Read the Center's opposition to preclearance (PDF).

“I cannot conclude that the school district's burden under Section 5 has been sustained as to the reduction in the number of school board members from twelve to seven; the change in the method of election from a twelve-member board elected from six double-member districts to a seven-member board elected from six single-member districts and one member elected at large; and the implementation schedule. Therefore, on behalf of the Attorney General, I must object to those changes.” Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General

Posted by Mark Dorosin on Fri. May 18, 2012 4:42 PM
Categories: Community Inclusion, Pitt County, Voting Rights
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