There’s a good chance that you’ve never heard of Jones County, North Carolina. Located in Eastern North Carolina, and tucked between the familiar cities of Jacksonville and New Bern, it is home to an estimated 10,381 people (2000 Census). With this population, it ranks as the fifth-least populous county in North Carolina, sitting in 96th place out of 100 counties.
Historically, it was a Democrat-leaning county, until the voting patterns started to change in favor of the GOP in the mid ’90s. Many African-Americans in the county and advocate groups around the state allege that this is due to racially polarized voting. Racially polarized voting means that the when a person casts a vote for a candidate, it is because they share the same skin color, rather than the same political beliefs.
According of the 2000 Census, Jones County is roughly 61 percent white and 36 percent black. Despite having a substantial black population, there has not been an African-American County Commissioner since 1994. An advocate group, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, believe this is due to racial voting, where “white voters consistently vote as a bloc to defeat candidates supported by the black community.” The group filed a suit in February of 2017, for the black voters of Jones County, and won in August. This suit was heard by the District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, which determined “systemic neglect” for the voting rights of black residents.
This court decision completely changed the way County Commissioners are elected in Jones County. Previously, all County Commissioners were at-large Commissioners, meaning that they did not represent a district of Jones County, and everyone in the county could vote for each of the candidates for the Board of Commissioners on a single ballot. This election process allows residents to vote for every commissioner, rather than just the commissioner that represents one’s district and that district’s unique interests and concerns.
With a system of districting that allows for a commissioner to represent a particular district, the coalition of lawyers believe this will help the voices of African-American residents be heard. They will have commissioners that are sympathetic to their specific needs, since they are their direct constituents. Rather than a strictly majority-rule democracy at the county level, Jones County will now have leaders that are reflective of the communities they represent.
These events are occurring at a monumental time in the voting history of North Carolina. Constantly plagued by allegations of gerrymandering, the NC General Assembly has had to redraw both congressional district in the Summer of 2017 and are in the process of redrawing 30 state assembly districts, the deadline of which passed on Friday. In both of these situations, the courts determined them to be cases of racial gerrymandering, in which the voting districts were drawn by the demographics of an area, which is illegal under the Voting Rights Act. This is different from traditional gerrymandering, which occurs when districts are drawn to give a partisan advantage for a political party. This form of gerrymandering is legal.
Black residents of Jones County received a huge win that reaffirms their right to vote and have their voices heard. The same is happening for many North Carolinians as court case after court case has destroyed voting districts that favor one group at the expense of another.