- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

A federal judge in Washington has dismissed on technical grounds a legal challenge to an Obama administration decision that a small North Carolina city must keep political parties in local elections because equal rights for black voters cannot be achieved without the Democratic Party.

U.S. District Court Judge John D. Bates said in an order dated Monday that the several residents of Kinston, N.C., who brought the case - including two potential Republican candidates for City Council - lacked what is known as the legal “standing” to do so.

The city itself could have challenged the ruling, but the Democrat-dominated City Council voted last year not to do so.

Kinston voters decided overwhelmingly in a 2008 referendum to eliminate partisan elections, but the Justice Department stopped the change because the city is among 12,000 almost exclusively Southern voting districts that require department approval before making any changes to voting procedures.

The lawsuit argued that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gives the federal government this power, is unconstitutional.

The department’s decision in Kinston, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.

“Removing the partisan cue in municipal elections will, in all likelihood, eliminate the single factor that allows black candidates to be elected to office,” the Justice Department wrote in a letter to the city explaining its ruling.

The letter further stated that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats, and the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.

Although the city elected a Republican mayor for the first time in memory last year, 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, the city received the department’s answer: Elections must remain partisan because the change’s “effect will be strictly racial.”

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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