Updated at 4:13 p.m.
A Virginia city, a California irrigation district and a Texas drainage district are the latest places to come to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice on exiting special supervision under the federal Voting Rights Act.
Today, DOJ announced it had reached agreements with the City of Bedford, Va. (PDF) and the Alta Irrigation District in California (PDF) on approving their “bailout” from special supervision; three-judge panels in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia are expected to approve both petitions.
On Tuesday, a three-judge panel approved a bailout (PDF) for Jefferson County Drainage District No. 7 in Texas. The Justice Department had agreed to that petition in April.
The approvals are the latest sign of a bump in smaller political jurisdictions petitioning for an exemption, known as a “bailout,” from Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
States and smaller political jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination were placed under Section 5 supervision starting in the mid-1960s. Covered jurisdictions are required to submit any proposed changes to electoral processes—from redistricting to the location of voting machines—for preclearance by the Justice Department.
The majority of bailout petitions, including the three recently approved, are being handled by J. Gerald Hebert, a solo practitioner in Alexandria, Va. Hebert has said the 2010 Census pushed a number of jurisdictions to seek a bailout now, since covered jurisdictions would be subject to additional reporting requirements during legislative redistricting.
"We’re making headway. The fact that some of the smaller political subdivisions are successfully pursuing bailouts shows it's cost-effective and not burdensome," said Hebert, who has two other bailout petitions pending in Washington federal court and is preparing to file at least eight others soon.
Only 21 bailouts have been previously approved since Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 1982. The Supreme Court, ruling in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District v. Holder, gave smaller jurisdictions the go-ahead to apply for bailouts in 2009.
In that case, the court was presented with a constitutional challenge to Section 5 based on the purportedly onerous reporting requirements it placed on smaller jurisdictions. The justices ruled that because smaller jurisdictions could apply for a bailout, the question was moot. The National Law Journal’s Marcia Coyle has reported on other pending Section 5 challenges that could bring the issue back to the high court.