Few Local Governments Embracing Bailout Provision

J. Gerald Hebert
Aug 12, 2010
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Voting rights groups and Department of Justice officials are as puzzled as I am why financially strapped local governments throughout Virginia are not seeking a bailout under the Voting Rights Act. After all, last year the U.S. Supreme Court opened the bailout door as wide as it could while leaving the Voting Rights Act intact.

The following opinion piece was published by the Daily News of Newport News, Virginia on August 11, 2010.

Voting rights groups and Department of Justice officials are as puzzled as I am why financially strapped local governments throughout Virginia are not seeking a bailout under the Voting Rights Act.

After all, last year the U.S. Supreme Court opened the bailout door as wide as it could while leaving the Voting Rights Act intact.

Despite this, hardly any local governments are bailing out.

What bailout are we talking about, you ask?

Local governments in Virginia can now bail out from the special provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

These provisions were targeted to the Deep South at a time when black voters were systematically denied the right to vote.

The provisions require governments to obtain the approval of the federal government before they make routine voting changes, like moving a polling place or changing the hours for voter registration.

Times are different now, and since 1982, local governments subject to this provision, know as Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, have been able to exempt themselves from the requirement if they can show they no longer discriminate.

What makes the failure to bail out by local governments in Virginia even more puzzling is the fact that it will save local governments money in the long run, and could save them considerable time (and money) in 2011 when the next round of redistricting begins.

There are four reasons why local towns, cities, and school boards throughout Virginia should bail out now.

First, the vast majority of local governments in Virginia are eligible to bail out. To be legally eligible for a bailout, you have to show that over the last 10 years you've complied with the Voting Rights Act.

To make this showing, local officials merely need to pull information from their files and send it to the federal government for evaluation.

Second, the process of obtaining federal approval for any voting changes, known as preclearance, was extended in 2006 for another 25 years.

Obtaining federal approval for each and every voting change over the course of the next two decades will cost a considerable amount of taxpayer dollars.

Third, a bailout is cost effective. It costs a county or independent city less than $5,000. And for a town or small political subunit within a county, the cost is about half that much. Obtaining federal approval via preclearance for every voting change they make can cost local governments big bucks, especially over time.

Fourth, the time to get a bailout is now, before the next round of congressional and legislative redistricting, which will begin shortly after the 2010 Census is completed.

Redistricting plans usually require accompanying voting changes - such as new polling places or precinct realignment - in order to accommodate the new legislative district lines on the map.

That means state or local governments will incur additional expenses for preclearance next year and added time to get federal approval (a minimum of 60 days and often longer).

Add to all this that the Department of Justice is itching for qualified local governments to bail out, and you can easily see why the time for bailing out has never been better.

If the reason that many cash-strapped local governments haven't undertaken a cost-effective bailout is that they were unaware of it, or thought it too costly, they should know about it and know it will save them money.

The bailout door is wide open. Will anyone walk through?

J. Gerald Hebert, an Alexandria lawyer, has represented all of the 64 local governments in Virginia who have bailed out under the act. He served more than 20 years as an attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice.

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