Merced County seeks removal from Federal Voting Rights Act's restrictions

Merced is one of only four counties in state subject to rules of section of voting law.

April 27, 2010 

Merced County is looking for a bailout.

No, not that kind.

One based on what officials view as a messed-up law.

The Board of Supervisors is holding a public hearing this morning to decide whether the county should fight to be removed from certain restrictions in the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At issue is the county's supervision under Section 5 of the federal law, which keeps local election laws frozen until any changes are approved by the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The county has spent nearly $1 million over the last decade, just to follow particular restrictions in the law, for what lawyers say was a glitch.

In general, most governments covered under Section 5 have a history of disenfranchising minority voters. Local governments could be included under the rules of Section 5 in 1965, 1970 and 1975 if the jurisdiction had either a test requirement for voters or turnout in the area was less than 50 percent of all registered voters.

Merced County -- then home to a bustling Air Force base -- had a low turnout in the 1972 presidential election, largely because the Air Force families were counted in the turnout numbers even though many of them weren't registered to vote in Merced or California. Instead, they sent absentee ballots to their hometowns across the country.

The number of absentee ballots cast from Merced created a low voter turnout, which then subjected the county to extra regulation.

There was no appeals process at the time, and the county has had to run each of its election decisions past the feds ever since, said Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. She supports the county's move to seek removal from the provisions.

"Saying that you have past violations of minority voters isn't a handle Merced County wants to wear anymore," Kelsey said. "Especially when we never had a violation."

Or especially now that the county's population is more than 50 percent Latino.

Merced is one of only four counties in California subject to the rules of Section 5. The other three counties in California are Kings, Monterey and Yuba. Nine entire states and portions of six other states also must follow the rules of Section 5.

Changes that require approval from the feds include any changes in the qualifications or eligibility for voting, registration, boundaries and a litany of other modifications.

The law firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor was hired by the county April 13. Its contract is worth $200,000 and lasts until June 30, 2011.

"We need to spend some money to save some money, but there will be light at the end of the tunnel," Kelsey said.

The public hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. at the board's chambers, 2222 M St., Merced.

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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