BENSON — When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, it appeared to give the town leeway to make changes to its elections. But Mayor Will Massengill isn’t holding his breath.
The town has three at-large seats on its board of commissioners, but residents can only vote for one of the three candidates on the ballot every four years. That’s because of a 1988 federal court decision that said Benson’s election system violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
Section 2 prohibited voting practices or procedures that discriminated on the basis of race. Most court cases arising under Section 2 involved challenges to at-large election schemes.
Before the 1988 decision, the Benson town board four commissioners, all elected at-large.
At-large elections have – at times in the past – been used to dilute the black vote. Black voters tend to live in concentrated areas, so a completely at-large system can dampen their impact on a local election.
Today, Benson voters elect three commissioners from districts – including one largely minority district – and three commissioners at-large, though residents can, again, only vote for one of the at-large candidates. The current town board has two black members: one from a district and one who was elected at-large.
Some board members, including the mayor, think it’s time to lift the curb on at-large voting. Every election cycle, Massengill said, he hears from residents who want to vote for all three at-large seats.
“This comes up every four years,” he said. “It becomes challenging to think about the three people on the ticket – maybe two of them you know well. How do you deal with that?”
Massengill said he thinks times have changed enough to get Benson out from under that 1988 court decision. “We have an African-American president now,” he said. “It’s much more common for minorities to be elected.”
Frederick T. Nelson, one of the two black commissioners in Benson, said he needed more information before voting on changes to the town’s elections.
“I would like to look at the demographics first,” he said.
“I’d really like to look at a detailed rendering of what our voting percentages have been.”
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Benson is 26.6 percent black, 14 percent Latino and 57.6 percent non-Hispanic white.
Despite a sizeable black population and recent breakthroughs, Nelson said he still thinks it’s harder for black candidates to get elected. Many of them don’t have the social capital to run strong campaigns, he noted, and black voters don’t always know much about the candidates on the ballot.
These things make Nelson hesitant to repeal one of the safeguards currently in place.
“It works against what we’re trying to do, which is get good representation,” he said.
Massengill said any change to Benson’s voting procedures would come slowly and certainly not in time for this year’s elections in November.
The mayor said he wants to talk first with town attorney Ike Parker, who is currently exploring the town’s options in light of the Supreme Court ruling.
Massengill said he hopes the prejudices that made Section 2 a necessity have faded enough to allow the town to move on.
“I’m not sure it’s as needed today as it was when it was put in place,” he said. “Hopefully, we’re judging people more on what they bring to the table than what their race is.”