Pre-Clearance Snafu at Justice Straightened Out

Pre-Clearance Snafu at Justice Straightened Out

Although the U.S. Department of Justice has not given pre-clearance for changing the School Board electoral districts, city officials say there should be no problem with the upcoming election.

The issue came to light when prospective School Board candidates tried to obtain voter lists. "The state Web site would not give us the voter lists because it said there were no districts," said Molly Danforth, a current School Board member, who plans to run again. "Once I realized that the districts had not yet been approved, I called the city attorney to ask what was going on."

What was going on was a series of coincidental bad luck and bad timing.

"We needed to make a number of changes for last November's election," said Ignacio Pessoa, Alexandria's city attorney. "We had to change some precinct boundaries and some polling places. I submitted those first and decided to submit the new School Board districts after the November election because I knew we didn't need pre-clearance until the upcoming election."

The changes for the November election were approved with no problem. Alexandria, like the rest of Virginia, is under supervision by the Justice Department pursuant to the Voting Rights Act, and pre-clearance is required for any changes so that Justice can ensure that there is no discrimination in the way that districts or precincts are formed.

"I submitted the request for pre-clearance for the School Board districts in November," Pessoa said. "I submitted this request electronically because, after Sept. 11, and the anthrax scares, Justice stopped accepting pre-clearance requests by mail or by courier."

BECAUSE HIS OTHER requests had arrived and been dealt with in a timely manner, Pessoa assumed that the request concerning the School Board districts would move smoothly through the administrative process at Justice. He didn't check on the status until mid-January, at which time he was told that Justice needed further information.

"I have been assured that we will have written pre-clearance by Feb. 24, in plenty of time for School Board candidates to meet the March 4 filing deadline," Pessoa said.

Tom Parkins, the registrar of voters, agrees that there shouldn't be a problem. "We can go ahead and check the names on candidates' positions and unofficially certify them," he said. "Once the districts are approved, then certification will not take long.

"Candidates who want to order voter lists so that they can begin campaigning before pre-clearance is received can order those lists by precinct. It will cost a little more than if they wait, but they can get them. As long as we get pre-clearance, I don't really see any problem."

And pre-clearance seems to be a certainty. "I have spoken with the folks at Justice, and they don't see any problems," Pessoa said.

Parkins concurred. "Even those who objected to the new districts didn't really raise anything that could be construed as a violation of the Voting Rights Act," he said. "Everything should be fine. This is more of an administrative problem than anything else."