KINSTON, N.C. | Voters in this small city decided overwhelmingly last year to do away with the party affiliation of candidates in local elections, but the Obama administration recently overruled the electorate and decided that equal rights for black voters cannot be achieved without the Democratic Party.
The Justice Department’s ruling, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.
The department ruled that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that therefore the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.
Several federal and local politicians would like the city to challenge the decision in court. They say voter apathy is the largest barrier to black voters’ election of candidates they prefer and that the Justice Department has gone too far in trying to influence election results here.
Stephen LaRoque, a former Republican state lawmaker who led the drive to end partisan local elections, called the Justice Department’s decision “racial as well as partisan.”
“On top of that, you have an unelected bureaucrat in Washington, D.C., overturning a valid election,” he said. “That is un-American.”
The decision, made by the same Justice official who ordered the dismissal of a voting rights case against members of the New Black Panther Party in Philadelphia, has irritated other locals as well. They bristle at federal interference in this city of nearly 23,000 people, two-thirds of whom are black.
In interviews in sleepy downtown Kinston - a place best known as a road sign on the way to the Carolina beaches - residents said partisan voting is largely unimportant because people are personally acquainted with their elected officials and are familiar with their views.
“To begin with, ‘nonpartisan elections’ is a misconceived and deceiving statement because even though no party affiliation shows up on a ballot form, candidates still adhere to certain ideologies and people understand that, and are going to identify with who they feel has their best interest at heart,” said William Cooke, president of the Kinston/Lenoir County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mr. Cooke said his group does not take a position on this issue and would not disclose his personal stance, but expressed skepticism about the Justice Department’s involvement.
Others noted the absurdity of partisan elections since Kinston is essentially a one-party city anyway; no one among more than a half-dozen city officials and local residents was able to recall a Republican winning office here.
Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar denied that the decision was intended to help the Democratic Party. He said the ruling was based on “what the facts are in a particular jurisdiction” and how it affects blacks’ ability to elect the candidates they favor.
“The determination of who is a ‘candidate of choice’ for any group of voters in a given jurisdiction is based on an analysis of the electoral behavior of those voters within a particular jurisdiction,” he said.
Critics on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights are not so sure. “The Voting Rights Act is supposed to protect against situations when black voters are locked out because of racism,” said Abigail Thernstrom, a Republican appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “There is no entitlement to elect a candidate they prefer on the assumption that all black voters prefer Democratic candidates.”
Located about 60 miles from the Atlantic Coast in eastern North Carolina, Kinston has a history of defying governmental authority. During Colonial times, the fledgling city was known as Kingston - named for King George III - but residents dropped the “g” from the city’s name after the American Revolution.