In places with black minorities, at-large voting is an especially effective way to circumvent the VRA’s requirements that electoral districts maintain some sort of geographic and demographic coherence. That’s because the very nature of Jim Crow tended to pack black communities into dense natural districts; they became the basis for post-VRA voting districts, which have since provided most of the country’s elected black officials in places that use district-based voting. At-large voting neatly sidestepped that consequence. For places where black people were a majority, white county and state officials sometimes even tried to merge majority-black counties with majority-white counties to dilute black majorities, then installed at-large systems.
A 1968 report from the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights details the rise of at-large voting in the South. “Where Negroes are heavily concentrated in particular election districts, their votes can be diluted effectively by converting to at-large elections, in which their votes are outweighed by white votes in adjoining districts,” the commissioners wrote. In the interim between the VRA’s passage and the 1969 Supreme Court ruling in Allen v. State Bd. of Elections—which found the legislation’s famous “preclearance” requirement for Southern election laws held for even minor and local election measures—Southern white conservatives assaulted black voting power with a wave of shifts to at-large voting at multiple levels. The report mentions Mississippi and Alabama as the worst perpetrators, but that same year Louisiana passed a law allowing individual parishes to choose to use at-large voting, which had previously been banned. Also that year, Louisiana created the 32nd judicial district in the state to cover Terrebonne, and the parish chose to employ at-large elections.
“This method of election was put in place three years after the Voting Rights Act was meant to bring black people and people of color into the electorate,” said Leah Aden, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is currently representing the local NAACP chapter in a challenge to the parish’s at-large system in federal court. Although at-large voting largely withered in the South—under past scrutiny from the Department of Justice and the once-increasing strength of the VRA after numerous court interpretations and reauthorizations—it managed to slip through the cracks of time in Terrebonne Parish. Despite maintaining a 20 percent—and rising—share of black voters, the area has never elected a black judge in a contested race. Against DOJ warnings, as well as a 1996 report from the Louisiana Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts recommending a cessation of at-large voting statewide to ensure racial fairness, Terrebonne Parish persisted.
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