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Federal court okays N.H. ‘bailout’ from Voting Rights Act preclearance rule

New Hampshire no longer has to submit changes in its election laws to federal officials for approval under the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled Friday that New Hampshire can be “bailed out” from Section 5 of the act, which requires federal “preclearance” of laws affecting voters in certain states, counties, cities and towns. Ten New Hampshire communities were covered by the oversight rule.

New Hampshire’s request to be exempted from the requirement was supported by the U.S. Justice Department, which said it found significant voter turnout and no evidence of racially discriminatory voting practices in those 10 communities.

“We are bailed out from the preclearance requirements of Section 5 of the national Voting Rights Act. . . . This effectively is the end, as far as we’re concerned,” said Deputy Secretary of State David Scanlan.

Friday’s ruling came just two days after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case seeking to overturn Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in its entirety. The high court isn’t expected to rule until later this year.

The Voting Rights Act was a key piece of 1960s civil-rights legislation aimed at clearing away discriminatory laws and practices in the South that blocked African Americans from voting. Among other things, it granted oversight – either by the U.S. Department of Justice or by federal judges – over any changes to election laws in places that met certain requirements, such as low voter turnout and discriminatory laws that could be used to suppress non-white voters.

Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia are covered by the law, along with parts of seven additional states, including New Hampshire.

Eight towns and two unincorporated areas were covered by the preclearance rule: Rindge, Millsfield, Pinkham’s Grant, Stewartstown, Stratford, Benton, Antrim, Boscawen, Newington and Unity. Those communities saw voter turnout below 50 percent in the 1968 presidential election and, at the time, New Hampshire had a literacy test for voters, though Scanlan said that law apparently wasn’t enforced.

“There is a legitimate question whether New Hampshire should have fallen into this situation in the first place,” he said yesterday.

After Congress passed the Help America Vote Act of 2002, Scanlan said, lawyers at the state Department of Justice began working on a backlog of local and state voting-related laws that needed approval from the federal government. Those included everything from redistricting maps to last year’s voter ID law – 233 in total, all cleared by the U.S. attorney general over the last decade.

That cleared the way for the state’s petition, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15, to remove those 10 communities from the list of places covered by the preclearance requirement. The request was supported by Attorney General Eric Holder, and Friday a three-judge panel approved the settlement.

“The attorney general’s consent in this action is based upon his own independent factual investigation of the covered towns’ and townships’ fulfillment of all of the bailout criteria and consideration of all of the circumstances of this case, including the views of citizens of the covered towns and townships, and the absence of evidence of any racial discrimination in the electoral process,” according to the ruling, a unanimous decision by U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Griffith, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan and U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer.

A conservative group, the Center for Individual Rights, attempted in December to block the bailout, filing a motion to intervene on behalf of a New Hampshire man named Peter Heilemann. The group favors overturning the entirety of Section 5, and argued in a statement at the time that the New Hampshire case “creates a false impression that the bailout provisions minimize the unconstitutional burden imposed on states by Section 5.”

But that motion was rejected Friday by the judges, who ruled there was no evidence Heilemann would be negatively affected by the bailout and so had no basis to intervene in the case.

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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