Mrs. Thernstrom of the civil rights commission blasted the department’s interpretation of the law.
“The Voting Rights Act is not supposed to be compensating for failure of voters to show up on Election Day,” she said. “The Voting Rights Act doesn’t guarantee an opportunity to elect a ‘candidate of choice.’ … My ‘candidate of choice’ loses all the time in an election.”
When asked whether Justice had ever “either granted or denied” requests either “to stop partisan elections or implement partisan elections,” Mr. Miyar, the department spokesman, said it was impossible to retrieve past decisions on that basis.
But he did provide, based on the recollection of a department lawyer, a single precedent - a decision during the Clinton administration denying a bid from a South Carolina school district to drop partisan elections.
That decision employs similar reasoning and language as the Kinston ruling: “Implementation of nonpartisan elections … appears likely to deprive black supported candidates of meaningful partisan based support and to exacerbate racial polarization between black and white voters.”
But the 1994 decision doesn’t mention the necessity of the Democratic Party and doesn’t mention low turnout among black voters in that school district as a factor affecting their ability to elect candidates they prefer.
Kinston City Council member Joseph Tyson, a Democrat who favors partisan elections, said nothing is stopping black voters in Kinston from going to the polls.
“Unfortunately, I’m very disappointed with the apathy that we have in Kinston among the Afro-American voters,” he said.
Mr. Tyson, who is one of two black members of the six-member City Council, said the best way to help black voters in Kinston is to change the council’s structure from citywide voting to representation by district. Kinston voters currently cast as many votes in the at-large races as there are council seats up for election - typically three, or two and the mayor.
“Whether it’s partisan or nonpartisan is not a big issue to me, whether or not the city is totally represented is what the issue is to me,” he said. “If you have wards and districts, then I feel the total city will be represented.”
Partisan local elections are a rarity in North Carolina. According to statistics kept by the University of North Carolina School of Government in Chapel Hill, only nine of the state’s 551 cities and towns hold partisan elections.
The City Council could take the Justice Department to court to fight decision regarding nonpartisan elections, but such a move seems unlikely. The council voted 4-1 to drop the issue after meeting privately with Justice Department officials in August.
“What do I plan to do? Absolutely, nothing,” Mr. Tyson said. “And I will fight, within Robert’s Rules of Order, wherever necessary to make sure that decision stands.”
The Justice ruling and Kinston’s decision not to fight it comes in the wake of a key Voting Rights Act case last year. In that decision, the Supreme Court let a small utility district in Texas seek an exemption from the law’s requirements to receive Justice Department approval before making any changes to voting procedures. But the court declined to address whether the law itself is constitutional.
Critics of the law argue it has changed little since its 1965 inception and that the same places the law covered then no longer need Justice Department approval to make changes to voting procedures.