Butterfield Urges the DOJ to Maintain Its Original Decision to Oppose Changes to Elections in Kinston

Feb 10, 2012
Press Release

WASHINGTON, DC – Congressman G. K. Butterfield (NC-01) today sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Department of Justice (DOJ) to maintain its opposition to proposed changes that would make the City of Kinston’s elections nonpartisan.  In 2009, Kinston, located in Lenoir County, voted to alter their election procedure by making all city council elections nonpartisan.  Butterfield believes nonpartisan elections in Kinston would reduce Black voters’ ability to elect their candidate of choice.  Since Lenoir County is subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, any change to its election process must be precleared by the DOJ.  The DOJ originally opposed changes to Kinston’s city council election procedure.  However, the agency recently announced that it was reconsidering its 2009 decision. 

“In Assistant Attorney General Perez’s letter, in referencing the November 2011 elections, he acknowledged that ‘black voters in Kinston elected their candidates of choice to a majority of the seats on the Kinston City Council for the first time in modern times’”, wrote Butterfield.  “The impact of DOJ’s reversal would destroy these modest victories, as they are fragile at best.  DOJ’s decision to remove the protection of Section 5 preclearance when it is just beginning to appear to take make a difference is disappointing and shortsighted.”

Butterfield’s full letter to Attorney General Holder follows.

February 10, 2012

 

The Honorable Eric Holder

Attorney General of the United States

U.S. Department of Justice

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, DC 20530-0001

 

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I urge the Department of Justice (DOJ) to maintain its original objection to the proposed change to nonpartisan elections for the City of Kinston, North Carolina. 

In 2009, the City of Kinston, located in Lenoir County, voted to alter their city council election procedure by making the race nonpartisan.  As Lenoir County is a covered jurisdiction under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, any change to election procedure is subject to DOJ review and preclearance.  DOJ originally opposed the decision.

On August 17, 2009, Loretta King, then Acting Assistant Attorney General, wrote to the City of Kinston, objecting to the proposed change for the following reasons:

  • “…the city has not sustained its burden of showing that the proposed changes do not have a retrogressive effect,” a requirement for Section 5 preclearance.
  • “Removing the partisan cue in municipal elections will, in all likelihood, eliminate the single factor that allows black candidates to be elected to office.”                                                         

Unfortunately, DOJ recently announced that it was reconsidering the aforementioned 2009 decision in light of a request for preclearance to make Lenoir County Board of Education elections nonpartisan.  According to a January 30, 2012 letter from Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, DOJ found that, “there may ‘have been a substantial change in operative fact’” sufficient to compel the DOJ to withdraw its initial objection, based on Lenoir County demographic data accompanying the Board of Education request.  However, conflating the county and city electorates as equal would be a grave mistake, with dire consequences for Black voters in Kinston, as the Lenoir County data DOJ used in its decision-making process was from a dramatically different electorate and contest.

In Assistant Attorney General Perez’s letter, in referencing the November 2011 elections, he acknowledged that “black voters in Kinston elected their candidates of choice to a majority of the seats on the Kinston City Council for the first time in modern times.” (emphasis added). The impact of DOJ’s reversal would destroy these modest victories, as they are fragile at best.

DOJ’s decision to remove the protection of Section 5 preclearance when it is just beginning to appear to take make a difference is disappointing and shortsighted.  As the elections referenced in this letter only took place last November, there is no data available to determine whether this achievement was anomalous or whether it will be repeated in subsequent electoral contests, leading me to conclude that the “change in operative fact” DOJ is relying on is far less than “substantial”.

I request that the Department of Justice maintain its original position with respect to the City of Kinston’s proposed change to nonpartisan City Council elections.  I firmly believe the partisan nature of these elections is instrumental to ensuring that minority voters are and will continue to be able to elect the candidate of their choice.

Thank you very much.

Very truly yours,

 

G. K. Butterfield

Member of Congress