In the small town of Kinston, N.C., B.J. Murphy did something extraordinary on Election Day: The 29-year-old sales director for a local real estate company became the first Republican elected as the town's mayor since Reconstruction. He won by 61 votes. "I'm excited," a beaming Murphy told supporters at the local Board of Elections.
But Murphy's win wasn't the only remarkable dynamic in the eastern North Carolina town of 23,000 people: Less than three months before Election Day, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) overruled the town's plan to hold nonpartisan elections-a plan approved overwhelmingly by Kinston voters last November.
The reason stunned many: DOJ officials in the Civil Rights Division said the plan would hurt black voters by hindering their ability to elect Democratic candidates. The federal intervention riled both Republicans and Democrats in Kinston, and left legal experts wondering: Is the DOJ defending minorities or the Democratic Party?
At least 542 of the 551 towns and cities in North Carolina hold nonpartisan local elections. Kinston voters approved a nonpartisan system last year by a nearly 2-1 margin. Such a change requires "pre-clearance" from the DOJ for towns like Kinston that are in counties or states covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (The 1965 measure is designed to prevent discrimination against minority voters.)
In a letter to Kinston officials, Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King said the change would hurt minority voters by preventing the black community from electing "a candidate of choice." King underscored that blacks usually vote for Democrats.
Locals pointed out a problem: Blacks comprise the majority of voters in Kinston. But low voter turnout among blacks means they often comprise the minority of those who vote on Election Day. King acknowledged this dynamic but said the DOJ considered black voters "a minority for analytical purposes."
Either way, Murphy said he was "astonished" that the federal government disregarded the clear decision of Kinston voters: "I couldn't believe that one person in D.C. had the nerve-or even the capacity-to overrule the will of the voters." The mayor-elect said he would urge city council members (all Democrats) to appeal the DOJ decision.
City Councilman Will Barker has already tried: The Democrat asked his fellow councilmen to discuss an appeal, but the council voted 4-1 to table the discussion. Barker says he thinks the issue will resurface within the next couple of council meetings, though he didn't say whether he'd re-introduce it.
Unlike Murphy, Barker voted against nonpartisan elections, but he says he accepted the voters' decision. He says the federal government should do the same. "Five thousand people were basically told by a federal office: Your vote doesn't count," he said. "When you add it all up, I think it's wrong for an outside party to come in and say the democratic way doesn't matter."
Hans A. von Spakovsky-senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former DOJ official-said he was "astounded" by the department's decision: "What they did is so far beyond what the law says they are supposed to be doing." Spakovsky said that the department didn't identify any barriers to minority voters or offer any evidence that Kinston's policy was designed to discriminate against minorities. Instead, he says the department appeared to be protecting the Democratic Party.
The attorney also said he's worried about broader implications, noting the DOJ could apply similar standards to redistricting efforts after the 2010 census. States and counties covered by the Voting Rights Act would have to seek DOJ approval for redistricting based on census results. Spakovsky says if the DOJ uses similar reasoning as that in the Kinston case, "It will lead to very big court battles if what they are trying to do is protect Democratic districts."
Back in Kinston, Murphy is mostly concerned about issues like bolstering the local economy and cutting wasteful spending, but he says he's also worried about the precedent that the DOJ is setting: "The next thing you know they're going to be picking their own candidates."