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Court Asks Bush Administration for Views on Arkansas Voting Case

October 29, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today asked the Bush administration for its views of an appeal by black voters in a rural Arkansas County who say the election system in party primaries and countywide general elections is racially biased.

The court said it wants to hear from Justice Department lawyers before saying whether it will decide if the runoff election systems violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Lower courts said it does not.

The Justice Department response may take months.

Under Arkansas law, a candidate for a political party’s nomination or for a countywide office must receive a majority of the votes cast in a primary election to win a political party’s nomination.

If no candidate wins an outright majority, a runoff election is held two weeks later between the top two vote-getters.

The justices were told that Arkansas is one of 10 states employing such a system, ″all of them in the South and all of them with a long history of purposeful racial vote dilution.″

The other states were identified as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma.

The runoff system, as it operates in Phillips County, Ark., was challenged as illegal by black voters who say their voting power is being diluted.

Their lawsuit also alleged that the runoff requirements were adopted and maintained for the purpose of blunting black voting power.

Blacks comprise 52 percent of the population in Phillips County, located on the Mississippi River, but only 47 percent of the county’s voting-age residents are black.

No black candidate ever has received the Democratic or Republican nomination for, or been elected to, any countywide office in Phillips County since the turn of the century.

In the two most recent election years, four black candidates received the highest percentage of votes in their Democratic primary races but were defeated in runoffs by white candidates who had trailed them in the first election.

By contrast, no white candidate who has come out on top in a first primary without winning a majority of all votes has ever lost the ensuing runoff.

Black voters who challenged the election system cited as major reasons for such results the lack of access to motor vehicles and telephones for many black residents.

Only 9 percent of white households in Phillips County have no vehicle available, and 10.9 percent have no telephone, the justices were told. But 42 percent of black households have no vehicle and 30 percent have no telephone.

A federal trial judge threw out the black voters’ suit, ruling that they could not invoke the Voting Rights Act because blacks comprise a majority of the county’s population.

A three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge’s ruling by a 2-1 vote, and said the runoff system had violated the federal law in Phillips County.

But the entire 8th Circuit court last May voted 5-5 to uphold the trial judge’s ruling - killing the suit.

The case is Whitfield vs. Clinton, 90-383.