Yuba's voting aches
September 4, 2005 - Secretary of State Bruce McPherson praised the federal Voting Rights Act in a recent column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It's been 40 years since the federal law was passed, and it's come to have a peculiar impact on Yuba County.
McPherson noted that one section of the Voting Rights Act "requires the U.S. Department of Justice to preclear voting procedures in nine states and 66 counties (Kings, Merced, Monterey and Yuba counties in California) which authorities have deemed vulnerable to voter discrimination."
Huh? Yuba County "vulnerable to voter discrimination"?
The four California counties all had large military bases back in the 1960s, and that may have skewed some of the voter numbers the Justice Department reviewed.
"The Voting Rights Act was made applicable based on who did not vote," said Yuba County Counsel Dan Montgomery. "Most of the military personnel eligible to vote in California voted absentee in their home state, and that's why they weren't voting here."
Based on that, Yuba and the other three counties caught the attention of the powers-that-be in Washington.
"Lucky us," Montgomey said.
And so the Voting Rights Act created a new and onerous level of federal bureaucracy that the counties had to deal with when they wanted to redraw their supervisorial district boundaries after each census.
Yuba County also had to get the Justice Department's OK when it wanted to consolidate its courts.
In fact, Montgomery said, any governmental agency in the county with an elected board is subject to Voting Rights Act review, if there's a proposed change in district boundaries.
"It's time consuming," Montgomery said. "It's not particularly costly. Actually, most of the time is spent generating maps and charts and those kind of things for the federal government."
Six years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the section of the Voting Rights Act that required the so-called "preclearances."
The headache for Yuba County continued.
The county challenged the preclearance requirement in the 1970s, but the case was voluntarily withdrawn, Montgomery said.
"You're in until the court in D.C. tells you you're out," he said.
Soon after the Supreme Court's ruling in 1999, Francis Fairey, the county's clerk-recorder, complained that the feds even had to approve the shifting of polling places in the county.
"I don't care if it's a move across the street or whatever, it's been an annoyance and it's been extremely costly,'' Fairey said at the time.
Voting rights cases are not uncommon in Monterey County, where people tend to be politically active, but they're unheard of in Yuba County, where political activism is rare.
But for McPherson, the Voting Rights Act remains a shining example of democracy in action. For the four counties, it's just more bureaucracy.
As he also noted in his column, the Justice Department "has never rejected any redistricting plan in California."
What a surprise.
So the good people of New Orleans and surrounding environs learned the hard way that levees are a precarious way to keep the water out. If they had been watching their televisions in 1986 and 1997, they would have seen all those floods in California and a place called Yuba County. Plenty of lessons there.
Harold Kruger's column, Off Beat, appears on Sundays. E-mail him at email@example.com, call him at 530-749-4717; or fax him at 530-741-0140. You can also write him at the Appeal-Democrat, P.O. Box 431, Marysville, CA 95901-0431.