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Attorney Says Southern Runoffs Ready For Court Challenge

August 15, 1985

ATLANTA (AP) _ A group of civil rights lawyers, armed with a new federal court ruling that the primary runoff law in the city of New York discriminates against minorities, is taking aim at runoff elections in the South.

The ruling makes runoff primaries in the South ″very susceptible to a court challenge,″ Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, a lawyer for the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, said Wednesday.

U.S. District Judge Charles L. Brieant Jr. ruled Tuesday that the system of city runoff primaries in New York is unconstitutional and aimed at ″preventing minority voters from gaining political power.″

Under the struck-down law, a candidate for mayor, city council president or comptroller in New York had to receive more than 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Brieant suggested lowering the threshold to 30 percent.

The threshold is 50 percent in the 10 Southern states that require a second, or runoff primary, if no candidate wins a majority in primary voting.

Those states are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.

″We feel that if the 40 percent threshold in the city of New York is discriminatory, then the 50 percent threshold in the South clearly should be ruled discriminatory,″ Scott-McLaughlin said in a telephone interview.

″If we can win in New York City, we certainly can win in the South,″ he said. ″This was the test case.″

But Southern officials disagreed. Chris Haughee, a lawyer for the Florida House Ethics and Elections Commission, said the New York ruling ″only has persuasive authority″ in other federal circuits.

″My guess is that we would not react to bring Florida in line with this decision until it is heard by a higher court,″ Haughee said.

Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland said the New York ruling is ″encouragement to test the system in the South.″ But he added, ″I don’t see anything inherently discriminatory about runoffs.″

Scott-McLaughlin said the Center for Constitutional Rights has only one runoff challenge pending in the South, in Mississippi. But the organization is considering a similar suit in Alabama.

″We won’t come in unless we’re asked,″ he said. ″But we thought it was important to win first in New York City, which has a reputation as a liberal city, before continuing our efforts in the South.″

Alabama Attorney General Charles Graddick declined comment on the New York ruling. But Graddick would ″defend any state law challenged,″ press secretary Janie Nobles said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, campaigning in 1984 for the Democratic presidential nomination, raised the issue of runoffs in the South, contending that they prevent blacks from getting a fair chance in state elections.

And Frank Parker, a voting rights expert at the Joint Center for Political Studies in Washington, said Wednesday there is evidence to back Jackson’s claim. He said:

In 1982, H.M. Michaux, a black, received 44.5 percent in North Carolina’s 2nd District Democratic primary, but lost in the runoff to a white, Tim Valentine, who had received only 32.7 percent in the primary.

In 1968, Charles Evers, a black, received a 29.3 percent plurality in Mississippi’s 3rd District Democratic primary, but lost in the runoff to a white, Charles H. Griffin.

″It’s clear that in many parts of the South, dual primaries are discriminatory, both in effect and purpose,″ Parker said in a telephone interview. ″I think this ruling really establishes a precedent for a challenge in the South.″

Parker acknowledged that in black majority districts, such as Georgia’s 5th District, runoffs could benefit black candidates in the same way they benefit whites in predominantly white districts.

-85 0510EDT

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