Voting Rights on Trial on the Bayou

A federal lawsuit challenges a decades-old vestige of Jim Crow, and opens up new questions about the current state of the ballot.

African Americans wait in line to apply for registration in Buras, Louisiana, just weeks after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. (Jack Thornell / AP)

Terrebonne Parish is probably what people envision when they think about rural Louisiana. It’s chock-full of the swamps, fan boats, gators, and cypress trees that translate to postcards and movie backdrops. People speak Cajun French in public, and shrimpers and fishermen still make their living across the bayous.

But peek through the curtains of Spanish moss, and you might get a look at some of the less idyllic throwbacks to history. While higher-profile cases in Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin dominate the news and the nation’s highest courts, the people of Terrebonne Parish are engaged in a similar struggle for voting rights, one that here stretches all the way back to the Voting Rights Act, and could have major implications as the entire country reckons with the meaning of that legislation today.

Through a modern lens, the 1965 passage of the VRA is often erroneously seen as a singular, decisive victory in the struggle for black suffrage. Reports from the time paint a different picture: of a long guerrilla war aimed at limiting the act’s enforcement and effectiveness that never quite ended. Some of the most brazen and sinister attempts by white voters to suppress black ballots came in small rural communities—just like those in Terrebonne Parish. While today courts chiefly focus on the gerrymandering and voter ID laws that are the most effective statewide attempts at minimizing minority votes, those localized movements relied more on methods that diluted the voting power of individual black neighborhoods and their residents’ ability to govern themselves.

Chief among these was the move to at-large voting, in which all of the members of a municipality or county vote for all of a governing body or judiciary. Under this system, a majority-white electorate would water down the impact of then-newly gained black votes. This contrasts with district-based voting, whereby highly segregated communities of black voters—packed into districts carved out of the larger area—at least had a chance to elect some officials that they actually wanted to represent them.

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.

In the half-century since the parish moved to an at-large system, only one black judge, Juan Pickett, has ever been elected to the 32nd District Court. That he ran unopposed has been taken by state officials as proof of a black candidate’s ability to win elections. Yet, the previous judge in that seat, Timothy Ellender, stepped down after years of incidents: He wore blackface and prison shackles to a Halloween party—the state Supreme Court sent him afterward to racial-sensitivity training—and engaged in behavior so bizarre as to constitute a sustained legal miscarriage of justice. Pickett’s success, then, really seems to highlight the almost absurd sequence of events that had to take place for just one black victory.

To be sure, Louisiana state officials characterize the NAACP lawsuit, which LDF lawyers are arguing in court this week, as a weak case at best. They cite that the black minority is neither large nor compact enough to constitute an aggrieved voting block as described in VRA requirements. But the NAACP and LDF argue that their objections are undermined by the timing of the at-large shift, as well as the fact that other parish-wide voter schemes passed at the same time—like a 1969 bond vote restricted to property owners—have been considered unconstitutional by the nation’s highest courts. According to testimony in the Terrebonne Parish Branch NAACP, et al. v. Edwards, et al. trial this week from historian Allan J. Lichtman, black Terrebonne Parish residents also successfully sued to stop at-large school-district elections in the 1970s. He said the DOJ has since found that coherent black districts can be made in the parish, despite the state rejecting attempts to do so. If that’s validated by the court on Friday, it could trigger an at-large voting ban.

The implications for this case go beyond the judicial ramifications of having a representative elected court. The fact of the matter is that in the South, white voters simply don’t vote for candidates favored by black voters, and in places with a majority of white voters, like Terrebonne Parish, perhaps the easiest way to lose an election is to be endorsed by black voters. This sort of “racially polarized voting” is one of the core triggers and purposes of the VRA, and it’s getting worse 52 years out from its passage, not better. While it seems a minor brushfire over a district court, the decision in the NAACP lawsuit is yet another test of the ability of the courts to enforce the spirit of the VRA.

That test matters, especially as at-large voting has been tried in other areas after 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court ruling rendered preclearance essentially moot. Just after the decision, conservatives in Beaumont, Texas, finalized implementation of an at-large voting system for its school board after the ouster of four black members. Also in 2013, the city of Pasadena, Texas, redistricted its eight city-council districts into six districts and two at-large seats, a move that not only diluted the voting power of Latino voters by enlarging districts, but also did so by the addition of at-large seats. That move was found discriminatory by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas earlier this year.

“There’s always a fear post-Shelby that if you don’t have [preclearance] in place, majority-white voters and elected officials will revert to at-large voting,” Aden told me. There hasn’t been a sea change yet, but concerned parties view this lawsuit and others as test cases, both for how racially polarized voting influences court decisions after the Shelby County ruling seemed to make it less of a priority, and for the famed “Gingles test,” which provides for the legally mandated creation of majority-minority districts if said racially polarized voting exists.

The test in Terrebonne Parish is among other higher-profile voting-rights cases under way since Shelby County opened its legal can of worms—cases ranging from racial and political gerrymandering to voter ID laws. That people in the parish have been building this case for almost 30 years should be a reminder that voting rights and election laws birthed by the legacy of a stubborn Jim Crow were not yet erased when Chief Justice John Roberts famously opined that “our country has changed” in the Court’s 2013 decision. In some places and cases, it has changed, but in others people are quite literally still fighting the battles of years past.