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In Louisiana parish, a fight for black voting rights

Fifty years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, blacks in one Louisiana parish are still fighting for representation.

Louisiana’s Terrebonne Parish has never elected a black judge, even though one in five parish residents is African-American. In fact, it re-elected a white parish judge who had been suspended for wearing black-face as part of a racist parody Halloween costume.

Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund say the problem is the discriminatory voting system the parish uses, and last year they sued Gov. Bobby Jindal under the Voting Rights Act to force a change. On Friday, they filed papers asking a federal judge for a summary judgment in their favor.

The lawsuit demonstrates how the Voting Rights Act, which was badly weakened by the Supreme Court in 2013, remains a key tool for stopping not only high-profile statewide laws like voter ID, but also a range of local election rules that often fly under the radar.

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“This year, as we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement, Terrebonne voters are still fighting to ensure that their voices are represented in their judicial system,” Jerome Boykin, the president of the Terrebonne Parish NAACP and a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement. “After a half century, we still are struggling for representation for all voters at the ballot box.”

In depositions, state lawmakers who oppose of the suit have pointed to the election earlier this year of a black State District Court judge in Terrebonne, Juan Pickett, as proof that black candidates can win there. They say the at-large system doesn’t violate the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination in voting.

Since 1968, Louisiana has used an at-large voting system for Terrebonne Parish, meaning all five judges are elected by the parish as a whole, rather than splitting the parish into separate geographical districts. Because whites out-number blacks in the parish and whites rarely vote for black candidates in contested races, the system has prevented the election of a black candidate, according to the lawsuit. Over the last two decades, black candidates have received an average of just 8% of the white vote when opposed by a white candidate, the lawsuit said. Terrebonne Parish's population is 113,328, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2014 estimate.

Blacks live clustered together within the parish, meaning that if district-based voting were used, they would comprise a clear majority in one district. The parish does have district-based voting for its council and school board, and each have two majority-black districts.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund says the at-large system was adopted deliberately to weaken black voting power—a tactic employed by numerous southern jurisdictions in response to the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act. A separate case brought by the NAACP in Fayette County, Georgia, set to go to trial later this year, makes similar claims.

An episode involving a white parish judge underscores how little voting power the parish’s black residents appear to have. In 2003, Judge Timothy Ellender attended a Halloween party wearing black-face makeup, an Afro wig, handcuffs and a prison jumpsuit, in an apparent attempt to mock black prison inmates. A state panel suspended Ellender for six months, but rebuffed calls to dismiss him. In 2008, Ellender was re-elected through the at-large system, and was subject to mandatory retirement at the end of last year.

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For decades, minority advocates have urged the state legislature to change the at-large system to a district-based one, but lawmakers have declined to act. The plaintiffs say they named Jindal as a defendant because he has the power to sign legislation into law that would change the system.

Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund say the case highlights the need for a strong Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder made it harder to reverse discriminatory election practices in most southern states, including Louisiana.

“Terrebonne’s outdated at-large voting scheme clearly illustrates the current need for the Voting Rights Act,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel at the Legal Defense Fund. “The ability to elect your representatives is foundational to our democratic system. Terrebonne’s at-large system bars its black voters from exercising the full strength of their voting rights and must be replaced.”