Black Voters Say Ark. Court Elections Rigged Against Them

By Kevin Penton | June 16, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

No black candidate has ever been elected to the Arkansas Supreme Court, and a new lawsuit by voters claims the reason runs much deeper than campaign strategies or the hot-button issues of a given election year.

Arkansas is violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by diluting the voting strength of black residents as part of elections for the Arkansas Supreme Court and Arkansas Court of Appeals, community organizations and individual voters contend in the lawsuit, filed June 10 in the Eastern District of Arkansas.

And just how is the state diluting the voting power of its black residents, according to the suit? By holding at-large elections for choosing the seven Supreme Court justices and by carving districts for electing the 12 Court of Appeals judges that either pack black voters into certain sectors or divide them into smaller groups.

“When the methods for electing judges result in diluting black votes, black voters are silenced," said Natasha Merle, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, in a statement. "Arkansas must open the political process and provide avenues for fair voting for all of its citizens.”

Officials with the Arkansas attorney general's office and the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts could not be reached for comment for this story.

Even beyond the state Supreme Court, no black candidate has won a “biracial contested election” to the Court of Appeals, according to the complaint, filed by the Christian Ministerial Alliance, the Arkansas Community Institute and three black voters.

A black candidate won a contested election for a Court of Appeals seat in 2008, but he was running against another black candidate, the suit says.

“Defendants’ current methods of electing the justices of the Supreme Court and the judges of the Court of Appeals violate Section 2 because they result in the denial or abridgment of the rights of black voters to have an equal opportunity to participate in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice,” the complaint says.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by attorneys with Mays Byrd & O’Guinn PLLC, the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund Inc. and Shearman & Sterling LLP, said they want the court to either order the state to implement a newly compliant system within a deadline or tackle the job of crafting a new system itself.

During the state's judicial elections, black and white candidates often receive "significant majorities" of votes from those of their same racial backgrounds, according to the complaint. The state's racial makeup in the 2010 Census was 77% non-Hispanic white and 15.4% non-Hispanic black, meaning black residents' voting power is weakened by the at-large system, the suit says.

"Repeated failures of black candidates in judicial and nonjudicial contests, in conjunction with other factors, including prohibitively high campaign costs, have had a significant chilling effect on potentially qualified black judicial candidates competing for positions elected at-large," the complaint says.

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

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