09/21/11: Seeking a different sort of ‘bailout’

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

THE NORFOLK City Council was on retreat this week. At the top of the agenda on Tuesday morning, the second day of the two-day event, was the topic of redistricting. While I wish council members had taken it up at their retreat last year, the fact that they considered it at all gives me hope that Norfolk will be able to make progress toward a better system of electing its council representatives and, ultimately, to the removal of Department of Justice review of its district boundaries.

The official term for removal of that oversight is “bailout,” and a number of Virginia localities have been successful this year in achieving it. The most recent agreement, with Culpeper County, was announced last month. Four other localities — the counties of Rappahannock and Bedford and the cities of Bedford and Manassas Park — obtained similar agreements earlier this summer. Applications are pending in an additional four localities.

The bailout means that the jurisdiction no longer is covered by certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Specifically, the locality is exempt from the preclearance requirements of Section 5, meaning that their redistricting plans no longer have to be approved by DOJ.

To apply for a bailout, the locality has to demonstrate that during the past 10 years, it has not engaged in voting discrimination. The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia approves the agreement and retains jurisdiction for 10 years afterward.

The story of how Culpeper came to pursue the bailout is an interesting one. Electoral Board chair Mary Dale was not a resident of the United States in 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. She moved here in 1966. Prior to that she was a British citizen.

Dale first learned of the possibility of getting a bailout in the summer of 2010. Once the county’s Board of Supervisors approved the process, she started gathering the information, including Electoral Board records for the previous 10 years.

A jurisdiction must have a “spotless record of following the law,” according to a Fredericksburg newspaper. “It took a lot longer than we expected,” Dale told the paper.

But happen it did — or, rather, will, when the court signs off on the agreement later this month.

Prior to this year’s actions, only 18 jurisdictions in Virginia had been allowed to bail out of the Voting Rights Act provisions: the cities of Fairfax, Harrisonburg, Salem and Winchester and the counties of Amherst, Augusta, Botetourt, Essex, Frederick, Greene, Middlesex, Page, Pulaski, Roanoke, Rockingham, Shenandoah, Warren and Washington.

Noticeably missing from that list is any locality in Hampton Roads. Norfolk, with adjustments to its redistricting plan, could put itself on the path to being the first.