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Falls Church pushes to be freed from Voting Rights Act restrictions

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Local,Virginia,Taylor Holland

Falls Church is demanding that the U.S. Justice Department free it from provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, saying the city has proven it doesn't discriminate against minorities at the polls and no longer requires federal oversight of its election process.

"Voter registration opportunities in Falls Church for Falls Church elections are readily and equally available to all citizens," the city said in its filing. "No person in Falls Church has been denied the right to vote on account of race, color or membership in a language minority group for at least the preceding 10 years."

Virginia is one of a handful of state and local governments that, because of past racial discrimination, is required under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act to have any change to its electoral laws approved by the federal government, from the redrawing of election districts to the changing of a polling station. The only way to be freed from that so-called preclearance clause is to file a "bailout" petition stating that there has been no discrimination for at least the past 10 years.

Virginia has been unable to meet the standard and get out from under the act, but at least 20 communities in the state, including Prince William County, have been successful in winning an exemption by proving they no longer allow discrimination.

Falls Church's petition to Attorney General Eric Holder says the independent city has "fully complied" with all voting laws and should be freed from the provision and allowed to make changes to its voting process without being subject to federal approval.

Prince William County board Chairman Corey Stewart said winning an exemption for the county was a "major milestone" in its history.

"This shows how far we have come in the past 45 years," Stewart said. "We are an inclusive community. We protect the voting rights of all U.S. citizens regardless of race, religious preference or ethnicity. And this demonstrates our commitment to those essential rights of our citizens."

Falls Church spokeswoman Amy Betor said the city hopes its request will be approved so it "will no longer need to go through the preclearance hurdles when wanting to make a routine change to its election process."

The Justice Department has until April 16 to rule on the Falls Church petition. If approved, the city could be out from under the act by May 20.

Justice Department officials did not return calls seeking comment.

tholland@washingtonexaminer.com

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