City receives exemption

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December 2, 2011

12:38 AM

After 46 years, the City of Williamsburg and James City County are no longer subject to special federal oversight of voting and election practices mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The U.S. District Court in Washington issued Williamsburg and James City County separate consent decrees in early November, releasing the regions from the U.S. Department of Justice’s supervision over voting and election practices in the county.

“I was confident that [the] Court would sign the consent decree. James City County clearly met the criteria identified in the Federal Code to eliminate the preclearance requirement,” James City County attorney Leo Rogers said in an email. “I knew when the suit was filed September that USDOJ would endorse a consent decree with the Court. With both parties in agreement, the Court reviewed the record to make sure it met the Code and then entered the Consent Order.”

Under the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, certain states and jurisdictions were subject to federal scrutiny any time voting or election practices altered. The preclearance requirement, which applied to nine states, primarily southern, with paths colored by discrimination like Virginia’s, was aimed to suppress voter disenfranchisement.

For Rogers, this requirement most recently translated into seeking federal permission for using handicapped accessible voting machines. Before that, the preclearance requirement charged debates over Virginia’s redistricting. Virginia’s election cycle made it one of the first states subject to the Voting Rights Act to redistrict, and it applied 2010 census data to redraw the maps. These new maps then had to go through the Department of Justice, a step which placed racial concerns at the center of the General Assembly redistricting debates.

Rogers noted that the exemption saves money and time by not requiring citizens to submit stacks of documents for review and wait approximately 90 days for Department of Justice approval. Rogers began the application for exemption for James City County in late 2010.

The consent decree follows a year-long investigation by the Department of Justice into voting and election practices in the area, where a lack of specific complaints and a decade’s worth of non-discriminatory practices helped pave the way to Williamsburg and James City County’s exemption.

“Prior to filing the action in Court, the County worked with U.S. Department of Justice on its investigation,”
Rogers said in an email. “USDOJ gave its approval to the County in August 2011.”

Williamsburg and James City County jointly submitted a consent decree to the federal court in September.

“The City and County worked together on this process, but of course filed separate applications with USDOJ and the Court,” Rogers said in an email.

Williamsburg and James City County’s actions are part of a larger trend of states seeking to be “bailed out” of the preclearance requirement. James City County is one of 14 other Virginia counties and four other Virginia cities seeking exemption.

The court retains jurisdiction of the cases for 10 years. If any future problems arise, James City County and Williamsburg could be subject to the preclearance requirement again. All other mandates of the act still apply to those areas exempted from the preclearance requirement.

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