July 30, 2012

Justice Department clears Merced of voting rights scrutiny

Merced County has earned the chance to be free of intrusive federal political oversight, under an agreement made public Monday with the Justice Department.

WASHINGTON -- Merced County has earned the chance to be free of intrusive federal political oversight, under a Justice Department agreement made public Monday.

Citing the county's progress, Justice officials agreed it can be freed from special scrutiny imposed under the Voting Rights Act and in place since the 1970s. The decision means Merced County and political jurisdictions within it won't need federal "preclearance" before taking routine actions such as changing voting procedures or district lines.

"In the department's view, the county has met the requirements necessary for bailout," Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said in a statement. "We reached this conclusion after thoroughly reviewing information provided by the county and gathered during the department's independent investigation."

District 1 Supervisor John Pedrozo said getting out from under Section 5 of the act will make it easier and cheaper for the county to operate. The section requires covered jurisdictions such as Merced County to comply with regulations aimed at preventing discrimination with regard to polling practices.

County officials have said Merced County undeservedly fell under Section 5 in 1975 because of the military population at Castle Air Force Base. That population was treated as eligible to vote in Merced County, but many voted absentee in their home counties.

One of the criteria to avoid Section 5 requires that at least 50 percent of eligible voters be registered to vote. Many people stationed at the base were registered in their home counties but were counted in the census total, putting Merced County at a little less than the cutoff at 49.6 percent.

Pedrozo said he's happy the county is making progress to move beyond the cost and extra steps involved with Section 5.

"I just don't think we should be penalized like that," he said.

County Counsel James Fincher said that over the past decade, the county has spent about $1 million in legal costs and fees related to Section 5.

"Yes, we're certainly pleased that the DOJ agreed with us that Merced County doesn't belong under the act," Fincher said, noting that the county has heard those words before, but now has them in writing.

The agreement covers some 84 Merced County political jurisdictions, ranging from cities and school districts to water districts. A three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., still must approve the consent decree after a public comment period.

The agreement leaves Kings, Monterey and Yuba counties as the only California counties still subject to the act's preclearance requirements.

Although the 1965 law extends nationwide, most of the states and counties covered by its preclearance provisions are in the South.

Those states and counties had a history of discrimination against minority voters. Other counties, including those in California, were folded in because of other patterns or practices, including the use of English-only ballots in regions with significant non-English-speaking populations.

County officials had formally sought freedom from the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirements through a lawsuit filed in March 2011 in federal court in Washington, D.C.

"Merced County has a right to be very proud of itself," said Northern Virginia-based attorney J. Gerald Hebert, who represented the county. "We've been working on this for quite some time."

The county had to meet myriad requirements, including showing evidence of minority voting participation.

The county had a voting-age population of 175,095 as of the 2012 census, with adults identified as Latinos accounting for 49.4 percent of the voting-age total and non-Latino whites accounting for 37.2 percent.

The county also had to demonstrate that there were no known violations of laws governing voting discrimination in the past decade. The county's legal filing, in turn, prompted the Justice Department to investigate.

"Department of Justice attorneys have interviewed numerous members of local communities and reviewed a substantial quantity of documentary evidence," attorneys advised the three-judge panel in a new legal filing.

The federal inquiry included reviewing the minutes of the governing boards of "every city, school district and special district within the county that has conducted an election in the prior decade," attorneys added.

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