Prince William County this week became the largest local jurisdiction in the nation to be released from the requirements of a historic federal law ensuring fair treatment for minorities at the polls.
Officials on Wednesday said the Department of Justice granted a "bailout" releasing the county from its obligation to "pre-clear" voting changes — including redistricting — with the federal government under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The act requires that all or parts of 16 mostly Southern states seek approval for any voting changes because of a history of discrimination at the polls. To get the bailout, county officials had to demonstrate 10 years of unbiased voting practices.
Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart called the approval "a major milestone in our county's history."
"This shows how far we have come in the past 45 years," he said. "We protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens regardless of race, religious preference or ethnicity. And this demonstrates our commitment to those essential rights of our citizens."
Officials have long complained that obtaining approval for even the most seemingly innocuous changes costs time, money and effort.
For example, Prince William officials had to ask federal permission to close the county registrar's office for a day so renovations could be done on the building, according to assistant county attorney Jeffrey Notz.
Officials also had to seek permission from the Justice Department to change the name of a street in front of a high school where polling is conducted.
In 1997, the city of Fairfax became the first Virginia jurisdiction to be granted a bailout, and there are now more than 25 jurisdictions, with nine bailouts coming since August.
Gerry Hebert, a lawyer who handles many bailout cases, including Prince William's, said the county has demonstrated a stellar voting record despite attention it has garnered from unrelated issues in recent years. Prince William County had, to a certain extent, become synonymous with its tough crackdown on illegal immigration since 2007.
Given the county's size — its population topped 400,000 in the most recent census — more data had to be accumulated there than other jurisdictions, Mr. Hebert said, but the process wasn't much more complicated. Checking the county's political subunits, which include four towns within the county as well as its school board, took a bit longer, he said.
The county, in essence, sued the federal government in January seeking its release from the act. Justice Department lawyers accepted the county's argument and filed a consent decree in U.S. District Court for the District last month. A three-judge panel signed off on the agreement Tuesday.
Some have suggested that the act is no longer necessary.
Virginia Attorney General Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, speaking to reporters and editors at the annual AP Day at the Capitol in 2010, said the state has "outgrown" the requirement to pre-clear its legislative districts with the federal government.
Even if there was the will, the logistics of bailing out the entire state could be well-nigh impossible — all 134 of the state's counties and cities would have to pass muster, not to mention its towns and subdivisions.
"It would be quite a hurdle to overcome," said Mary Spain, a senior attorney with Virginia's Division of Legislative Services.
Mr. Hebert agreed but said that if the state were interested in expanding the scope of exemptions, officials would be better off targeting counties within Virginia that are virtually assured to be granted a bailout and seeking them on their behalf.
With Alaska and Arizona the exceptions, the other seven states covered as a whole under the law are all in the South. No states have been granted a bailout. Texas in March asked a three-judge panel to allow the state to challenge Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act as unconstitutional after the Justice Department objected to a state law requiring photo identification at the polls.
Covered counties and townships span from coast to coast: They include jurisdictions in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, Michigan, and New Hampshire.
Mr. Hebert said he is currently working on an exemption case for New Hampshire.
Under the law passed in 1965, if a state had a literacy test or poll tax and if turnout or the number of registered voters among the voting-age population was lower than 50 percent in the 1964 presidential election, a state or jurisdiction would become subject to pre-clearance.
In 1970, when the law was renewed, federal officials looked at turnout in the 1968 elections. Since New Hampshire still had a literacy test in place and the turnout was below 50 percent in a handful of jurisdictions, those localities in the Granite State became subject to Section 5.
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