Archived Story

Rule change

Published 7:44pm Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is null and void likely will not directly affect the way Beaufort County commissioners are elected, according to county officials.

Section 4 designates which areas of the nation must have changes to their voting laws cleared by the U.S. Justice Department or in federal court.

The decision did not strike down Section 5, which sets out the preclearance requirement. Without Section 4, Section 5 is without significance — unless Congress chooses to pass a new bill for determining which states would be covered.

Those sections, known as the preclearance portion of the Voting Rights Act, required Beaufort County and other counties in North Carolina (and some counties in other states) to seek federal approval of any election changes. Under those sections, any change to the method of electing county commissioners was subject to prior approval by the U.S. Justice Department or a federal court before it could be enacted — the preclearance process.

“Our decision in no way affects the permanent, nationwide ban on racial discrimination in voting found in (Section) 2. We issue no holding on (Section) 5 itself, only on the coverage formula. Congress may draft another formula based on current conditions,” the high court said in the 5-4 decision by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

The court’s ruling will have little, if any, influence with the county’s limited-voting method, said Kellie Harris Hopkins, the county’s elections director. A federal court would have to lift the order imposing limited voting, she said. If that happens, the Justice Department would not have to provide preclearance for that change because of the high court’s ruling.

For Beaufort County, the high court’s ruling means the county will no longer have to go through the preclearance process to relocate a polling place, redraw precincts or make other election-related changes, Hopkins said.

“It has to,” Hopkins said about a federal court having a say in doing away with limited voting in the county. “As far as the federal order we’re under concerning limited voting, that came about from the class action lawsuit that was brought by David Moore and company against the county. Say that we don’t even consider the Supreme Court’s ruling (Tuesday), we would have to get permission from the court, and it’s my understanding the court would ask the plaintiffs how they felt about the change, and then he would lift the order. Right now, the mandate is that we operate under limited voting.”

Hopkins addressed another aspect of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“The decision did not strike down Section 5. They’ve not found preclearance to be unconstitutional. What it seems to me is the Supreme Court felt that the formula, which was based on levels of discrimination in 1965 no longer applied to our counties,” Hopkins said. “It still remains to be seen if Congress changes the formula.”

Beaufort County Commissioner Gary Brinn, chairman of the Beaufort County Limited Voting Committee, is studying the high court’s ruling.

“That decision (Tuesday) was big, I think. I tell you … I don’t believe it’s going to change our pattern on what we’ve decided,” Brinn said.

Since 1991, Beaufort County voters have used limited voting to elect commissioners. The method was imposed on the county by an order from a federal judge. The judge issued the order to enforce an agreement between county leaders and a group of black residents concerning the system of electing commissioners.

During its deliberations in February, the committee closely reviewed the Voting Rights Act, especially Section 5. The committee was tasked with finding an alternative to the limited-voting method used in the county.

Brinn, in an interview Tuesday night, said the high court’s ruling might not affect the committee’s recommendation regarding how commissioners are elected. That recommendation will be presented to the Board of Commissioners on Monday, he said.

The panel recommends that in elections when four seats on the seven-member board are open for election, that voters be allowed to vote for two candidates, and in elections when three seats on the board are up for grabs, voters may vote for only one candidate, Brinn said. That plan is derived from a study in 2007.

The panel considered two other options. One option retained the current seven-member configuration but with commissioners elected from districts (one commissioner per district) across the county. The other option called for four commissioners to be elected from districts, with one commissioner elected from each district. That option provided for three commissioners to be elected at-large across the county.

“I believe the way we are going to progress on this is we’re going to try to stay with what the committee came up with and leave limited voting in place for right now. I think it’s a good first step. So, that’s what I’m going to propose on Monday night,” Brinn said.

“They also did away with Section 4. By doing away with those two (sections). I think it pretty much gives the state the authority — and the local municipalities — to make their own decisions.”

Brinn said he believes that changing the voting method in Beaufort County likely will require going before a federal judge to get permission to make a change.


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