Continued from page 1

“It’s a bit unusual, but there shouldn’t be a real barrier,” said Mr. Carvin. “We have candidates who will be dramatically and directly affected by the failure to switch to nonpartisan.”

The plaintiffs include Stephen LaRoque, who organized the referendum on the nonpartisan issue, and John Nix and Klay Northrup, who intend to run for the Kinston City Council next year and think it will be difficult for them to win without nonpartisan elections. Although the city elected a Republican mayor for the first time in memory last fall, Kinston is very much a one-party town with Democrats holding virtually every office.

In the November 2008 elections, the city had uncommonly high voter turnout, with more than 11,000 of the 15,000 registered voters casting ballots. In that election, residents voted by a margin of 2-to-1 to eliminate partisan elections in the city.

The measure appeared to have broad support among both white and black voters, as it won a majority in seven of the city’s nine black-majority voting precincts and both of its white-majority precincts. About two-thirds of Kinston’s 23,000 residents are black.

But before nonpartisan elections could be implemented, the city had to get approval from the Justice Department. In an Aug. 17 letter by Ms. King, the city received the department’s answer: Elections must remain partisan because the change’s “effect will be strictly racial.”

Ms. King is the same official who put a stop to the New Black Panther Party case, in which the department filed a civil complaint in Philadelphia after two members of the black revolutionary group dressed in quasi-military garb stood outside a polling place on Election Day 2008 and purportedly intimidated voters with racial insults, slurs and a nightstick.

After a judge ordered default judgments against the Panthers, who refused to answer the charges or appear in court, the Justice Department dropped the charges against all but one of the defendants, saying, “The facts and the law did not support pursuing” them.