POLITICS
06/25/2013 07:00 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2013

The Last Voting Rights Act Bailout Ever Went To Hanover County, Va.

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WASHINGTON -- On Monday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced it had reached an agreement with Hanover County, Va., that meant changes to the county's voting laws and practices would no longer need to be cleared by the DOJ before going into effect.

Hanover, like all counties in Virginia, must have changes to voting laws and procedures cleared by the DOJ's civil rights division or by a three-judge panel in federal court. But a DOJ investigation found that the county had not enforced voting changes without federal permission for 10 years and that it could be "bailed out" of the preclearance requirement.

“In the department’s view, the county has met the requirements necessary for bailout," Matthew Colangelo, Deputy Assistant Attorney General for the civil rights division, said in a statement. "We reached this conclusion after thoroughly reviewing information provided by the county as well as information gathered during the Department’s independent investigation."

By Tuesday morning, a major Supreme Court ruling rendered the review process irrelevant. By eliminating the formula that determined which parts of the country had to preclear changes to their voting laws, the court effectively eliminated the requirement altogether -- unless Congress comes up with an updated formula. That means every county, including Hanover, is free to implement changes to their voting laws without federal approval.

The court's decision makes Hanover County the last county to ever reach a bailout agreement, which would have required the approval of a panel of federal judges, with the DOJ. A. Lisa Barker, senior counsel in the Hanover County Attorney’s Office, told The Huffington Post that the preclearance requirement imposed a burden on the county that wasn't necessary.

"I've been here for about 33 years, so I can't speak to the time period prior to that. It may have served a good purpose prior to that," she said. "Certainly, we've complied with all the sections of the Voting Rights Act, not just the preclearance section, but we would do that regardless of whether preclearance was required."

Hanover County, roughly an hour and a half south of D.C., is home to Patrick Henry's birthplace, several Civil War battles and the theme park Kings Dominion. Its population is just under 100,000. "I'm looking out the window right now at a wonderful post-Civil War historic home owned by the county and a field that traditionally was a pasture. It's a lovely place," Barker told HuffPost.

DOJ hasn't objected to any voting changes in the county since the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965, nor has the county sought judicial preclearance of any voting changes. Several black officials have been elected in the county, while the percentage of black poll workers (15.8 percent) exceeds the overall percentage of the county's 9.7 percent black population.

Because of the paperwork and staffing requirements that come with preclearance, the board of supervisors authorized the bailout request. The county, working with former DOJ lawyer J. Gerald Hebert, filed its lawsuit against DOJ in early May. Barker said she couldn't say whether preclearance had a positive effect elsewhere in the country but thought the court must have had a good reason for tossing out the formula.

"I wouldn't disagree with the Supreme Court on this or any other issue," Barker said. "I'm sure all their reasoning is well-articulated."

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