Can Escape Clause Save Voting Rights Provision?

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At that point, so few governments had tried to free themselves from the advance approval requirement that, in 2009, Thomas said the “promise of a bailout opportunity has, in the great majority of cases, turned out to be no more than a mirage.”

At the time, Thomas said, only a handful of the 12,000 state, county and local governments covered by the law had successfully bailed out.

The overall numbers remain low, but the Obama administration argues that “the rate of successful bailouts has rapidly increased” since the high court last took up the Voting Rights Act nearly four years ago.

In the past 12 months, 110 local governments have been freed from the requirement to show in advance that their proposed election changes are not discriminatory. Places that have won their release from coverage include Prince William County, Va., with more than 400,000 residents, and Merced County, Calif., and its 84 municipalities.

Shelby County says that even with the recent jump in bailouts, “only a tiny percentage” of governments have found their way out of oversight from Washington.

The advance approval was adopted in the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to give federal officials a potent tool to defeat persistent efforts to keep blacks from voting.

The provision was a huge success, and Congress periodically has renewed it over the years. The most recent time was in 2006, when a Republican-led Congress overwhelmingly approved and President George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension.

The requirement currently applies to the states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. It also covers certain counties in California, Florida, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota, and some local jurisdictions in Michigan and New Hampshire. Coverage has been triggered by past discrimination not only against blacks, but also against American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives and Hispanics.

The 10 covered towns in New Hampshire are poised to become the next places to win their release from the law. An agreement between the Justice Department and the state is awaiting approval from a federal court in Washington.

Critics of the law contend the Justice Department is highlighting the escape hatch and agreeing to allow places such as the New Hampshire towns to exit to try to make the entire law look more palatable to the court.

Alaska Attorney General Michael Geraghty says in his court filing in support of Shelby County that the Justice Department “commonly agrees to bailouts for jurisdictions that are not legally entitled to receive them.”

But supporters of the law argue in response that the federal government’s willingness to agree to free places from the need to get permission shows that the voting rights act is flexible and helps focus attention on potentially discriminatory voting schemes.

(Photo: AP)

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