Memo to Cooch: Check the Voting Rights Act

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    The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law has written a letter to Ken Cuccinelli explaining that the Voting Rights Act requires Virginia to notify the federal government and get clearance before any changes in the method of reinstating a felon’s right to vote.

    It appears that the McDonnell administration didn’t bother to research that basic fact when it announced that it would make felons who have paid their debt to society write an essay and submit it to the governor’s office before they could be considered for restoration of that right. As we all know, the uproar that came so closely on the heels of McDonnell’s Confederate Month declaration caused an immediate backpedal.

    McDonnell’s office rescinded the first announcement and said no decision on the matter had been made, even though the first announcement had said that some people had already been informed that they would have to write an essay. Now, the Washington-based lawyers committee is telling the governor what his attorney general should have pointed out before any such announcement was made; i.e., it would be illegal to change the policy without prior federal notification.

    Perhaps if Ken Cuccinelli would put his attention where it belongs – being the objective lawyer for the state – he could have avoided the governor looking yet again as if he were acting out of prejudice. Instead, he evidently has himself and his office tied up with his misguided suits against the federal government.

    Because Virginia was one of the states that had laws designed to make it extremely difficult – if not impossible – for black citizens of the state to vote, it is covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Justice Department or a three-judge panel of the D.C. District Court has to pre-clear any change in voting qualifications or procedures for granting the right to vote.

    The Supreme Court upheld that part of the act in a 1969 case from Virginia, Allen v State Board of Elections. At issue was an attempt following the passage of the Voting Rights Act by Virginia and Mississippi to change from district legislative reprresentation to at-large representation, an action that would effectively dilute black votes so as to make them meaningless.

    The ruling of the court was a landmark interpretation of the Voting Rights Act, and I fail to see how someone in the attorney general’s office didn’t know that – unless no one in the governor’s office bothered to have Cuccinelli’s office look at the proposal. If that is the case, then McDonnell either needs to brush up on his law or he needs to hire people at least vaguely aware of the laws covering the individual right to vote.

    No one has said that it would be illegal to require a written essay from a former prisoner outlining his or her civic activities and religious views. The process of changing the way Virginia reinstates voting rights simply requires review on the federal level.

    The whole thing again makes the administration of the new governor appear unaware of the ramifications of its actions. It was a dumb thing to announce because it is transparently an attempt to closely control who does and who does not get back the right to vote. Heck, it reminds me of middle school punishment, sort of like making someone write an esay on “Why I Should Obey School Rules.”

    The McDonnell administration is running out of the ability to use the justification that these glitches which cast an extremely bad light on Virginia are because they are new to the job. First, Bob McDonnell could prove that he is very serious about governing the Commonwealth if he reined in Ken Cuccinelli and told him to stick to the job he was elected to: being an objective interpreter of state and federal law for the citizens and state agencies who are his clients. Absolutely no one appointed Cooch the interpreter of the state-federal power relationship.

    Sometimes I wish someone would tell Cuccinelli that John C. Calhoun died in 1850, and no one in this state wants or needs another Calhoun.