Merced County seeks to shed voting rule aimed at discrimination

Minority groups back effort to escape Federal Voting Rights Act's costly Section 5

March 24, 2011 

Local officials are trying to get rid of a label they say unfairly stigmatizes Merced County as racist.

Section 5 of the Federal Voting Rights Act requires covered jurisdictions, such as Merced County, to comply with regulations aimed at preventing discrimination when it comes to polling practices.

Nine states are entirely covered by Section 5, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Most of them are in the Deep South. Besides Merced, three other California counties are covered, including Kings, Monterey and Yuba.

While Section 5 pertains to discrimination, county officials say the reason Merced is covered isn't because it has a history of racial discrimination. They say the county fell into the undeserved category because of its situation when it was listed in 1975.

The county barely missed the demographic criteria required in Section 5, but much of the data were skewed by the military population stationed at Castle Air Force Base, said Supervisor Hub Walsh.

That population was treated as eligible to vote in Merced County, but many voted absentee in their home counties. One criterion to avoid Section 5 was that at least 50 percent of eligible voters had to be registered to vote at the time, said James Fincher, county counsel. Many people stationed at the base were registered in their home counties, but were still counted in the census total, putting Merced County just below the cutoff at 49.6 percent.

The main reason the county is working to bail out of Section 5 is the expense that comes with it, Walsh said. "It's really costly," he said. "Everybody incurs it."

During the past decade, the county has spent nearly $1 million to comply with Section 5 and defend against litigation that arose because of it, Fincher said. Because of Section 5, Merced County was used as a political football during the 2003 recall of Gray Davis, California's governor at the time, he said.

Merced County was sued based on its alleged failure to get preclearance in connection with the recall, but eventually won the case, Fincher said. The lawsuit was simply a ploy to stymie the recall.

There's still no timetable as to when Merced County might be taken off the Section 5 list. The Department of Justice has recently set about documenting that the county's been in compliance with the regulations over the last 10 years, Fincher said.

County officials met with the Department of Justice a year ago in Washington, D.C., and got a list of tasks to complete. "We have met all the requirements of that list," Fincher said, adding that the county is addressing a list of questions that came from the Department of Justice last week.

Several county officials said getting rid of Section 5 is less about racial issues and more about preventing unnecessary costs to the county.

However, Napoleon Washington Jr., president of the Merced Chapter of the NAACP, argued that racism is alive and well in Merced County. "Regardless of what people think, it is here, but it's not as overt as it once was," he said. "Color is still considered in our city and in our county."

While Washington has some reservations pertaining to voting rights, his group was among several in Merced County that have supported bailing out of Section 5, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Lao Family Community.

Voting procedures are not as open as they could be in the county and everyone should have equal access to the political process, Washington said. "We've had issues here in Merced where people have gone over to the elections office and haven't been properly informed of the procedure; people have been given misinformation."

Washington's more concerned with the big picture when it comes to voting rights. "There has to be care and concern about the voting rights of everybody," he said.

Bailing out of Section 5 would be a gradual process, not an overnight change, Washington added. "The Department of Justice will continue to watch the voting process in Merced County to ensure that people are not disenfranchised," Washington said.

Merced County NAACP officials held a phone conference with attorneys from the Department of Justice in December. "They contacted us, we expressed to them what we felt were still some concerns, and they assured us that even though Merced County was applying to be removed, it would be a gradual process," Washington said.

The Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, according to the Department of Justice. From 1965 to 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court made several decisions upholding the constitutionality of Section 5.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or

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