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Prince William Co. seeks bailout from voting-rights rules

Prince William seeks federal ‘pre-clearance’ for changes to save money, time

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WASHINGTON — Prince William County officials are trying to convince the federal government that they treat minorities fairly enough to be excused from extra oversight of their local elections.

Because racism and discrimination are part of their histories under the Voting Rights Act, Virginia and all or parts of 15 other states must get Justice Department approval - called pre-clearance - for changes to even the smallest voting laws or procedures. Pre-clearance extends to localities.

The issue most notably surfaces during the once-a-decade redistricting process. Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, signed redistricting plans last week for state Senate and House districts and sent them to the Justice Department. The Fairfax and Prince William county boards approved and submitted plans for new county board and School Board districts, precincts and polling places at the end of April.

County, city and smaller government units are able to apply for an exemption, or bailout, from the special supervision.

Prince William officials say a bailout would save them effort, money and time, county spokesman Jason Grant said.

“It applies to everything we do,” Mr. Grant said. “There are a lot of things we do on an annual basis that require the pre-clearance stuff.”

For example, Prince William officials had to ask permission to close the county registrar’s office for one day so renovations could be done on the building, assistant county attorney Jeffrey Notz said. They also had to seek permission to change the name of a street in front of a high school where polling is conducted. And right now, the county is awaiting permission to change the name of a precinct from Dumfries to Potomac.

In short, the Justice Department must grant pre-clearance any time there is a change in voting procedure, Mr. Notz said.

“Some years, we have one or two requests and other years we might have a dozen,” Mr. Notz said. “It’s really tough to tell.”

The county has hired Alexandria attorney Gerry Hebert, who specializes in helping governments in Virginia and across the country apply for bailout.

In 1997, Fairfax City became the first of 16 Virginia jurisdictions to be granted a bailout, Mr. Hebert said. While they span the state geographically, there’s a concentration along the Blue Ridge valley to the west for “no rhyme or reason,” he said.

As governments respond to the economic downturn by cutting budgets, more are applying for a bailout in order to save the thousands of dollars it can cost annually to operate under pre-clearance, Mr. Hebert said. He said Bedford County and the cities of Manassas Park and Bedford also are awaiting approval.

Like governments that have gone before, Prince William officials have to show the Justic Department a history of full compliance with the Voting Rights Act - things such as making timely submissions of election changes; never having been sued for violating voting rights on account of race, color or minority status; making it easier to register to vote, and showing a record of minority participation in the voting process.

Mr. Hebert said he has submitted all requested data to Justice and expects to hear within 30 days whether the bailout has been granted. He is unaware of any government whose applications for a bailout has been rejected and expects Prince William will get its request.

“It’s not difficult if you’ve had a good record of compliance, which most jurisdictions can show,” Mr. Hebert said.

If and when Prince William County joins the bailout ranks, it won’t be in time to affect how the county goes about redistricting before the Aug. 23 primary election. Officials are more concerned about making life a little easier for election officials, longer-term.

“We’re looking to be treated as every other jurisdiction in the country that doesn’t have to do this,” Mr. Grant said.

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Paige Winfield Cunningham
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