Justice Department: Prince William County exempted from Voting Rights Act provision

Prince William County, like local governments in many Southern states with a history of discrimination, has long been required to obtain federal approval for changesin voting procedures.

Conducted by the Justice Department, the reviews are a legacy of the Voting Rights Act and the discrimination that the 1965 law was intended to stamp out.

Nearly half a century later, officials in Prince William say the federal scrutiny is expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary.

This month, Justice said it agreed, concluding that advance reviews no longer are necessary for Prince William. Now that recommendation goes before a federal court in the District, which has jurisdiction over Voting Rights Act reviews.

If approved, Prince William would be the largest jurisdiction in the country to have gained what is called a “bailout” exemption, according to county officials.

“This is a huge symbolic accomplishment,” said Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large). “It’s yet another indication that the county . . . [is] a very cosmopolitan, diverse, modern jurisdiction that has emerged from the shadows of the past.”

The county will still be bound by federal anti-discrimination laws but will not have to submit plans ahead of time.

Neighboring Fairfax and Loudoun counties have not considered applying for an exemption, according to officials there. The cities of Fairfax and Manassas Park have been granted exemptions, according to Justice’s Web site.

Redistricting for Virginia’s legislative and congressional seats continues to be subject to advance federal review and would not be directly affected by Justice’s decision on Prince William County.

Not everyone agrees that the problem of discrimination in voting procedures is entirely in the past for Prince William. Gregg Reynolds, a county activist, said he was surprised by Justice’s decision.

He said the threat of the “pre-clearance” procedures affected last year’s redistricting process, in which new voting and supervisor districts were drawn to conform with population shifts documented in the 2010 Census.

A precinct near Dumfries called River Oaks was up for debate, and there was an initial plan to move the minority community from the heavily Democratic Woodbridge district to the Republican-represented Potomac District, Reynolds said.

After residents spoke up, supervisors changed the lines. Reynolds said he alerted Justice.

“If there had not been a Justice Department overview of that, they would have just split River Oaks,” he said. “Not everything is squeaky clean in Prince William County.” Reynolds and others also had argued that there should be an additional supervisor representing the area near Manassas, which has a large Latino population.

“The supervisor on the board probably would have been a Latino,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds said the community should receive more scrutiny given its recent history with minorities. In 2007, the county passed an immigration law that Reynolds and others say was “divisive” and aimed at Latinos. The original version of the law required county police to check the immigration status of anyone arrested ifthere was probable cause to believe that the suspect was an illegal immigrant.

That policy was later changed so the immigration status of every arrested person is checked. Stewart said there have been no “substantiated” claims of racial profiling since the policy took effect.

County officials said Justice asked elected leaders and community members about the immigration law and about minorities’ role in the community and their relationship with government.

The department often asks questions that don’t pertain directly to discrimination in voting, according to Voting Rights Act experts.

“They generally try to get a broad picture of the status of race relations and political issues in these covered jurisdictions,” said Richard Hasen, a University of California-Irvine law professor.

To obtain a Justice waiver, Prince William had to prove, among other things, that the county had not discriminated against minority voters for the past 10 years, according to the agency.

All or part of 16 states, including Virginia, and most localities within them are subject to Justice’s “pre-clearance” requirements.

The Obama administration has recently used Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to block voter ID proposals in Texas and South Carolina that administration officials say are discriminatory.

Staff writers Caitlin Gibson, Fredrick Kunkle and Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

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