Federal oversight of electoral plans still needed says civil liberties organization.

Richmond, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today issued a statement sharply differing with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s recent remarks questioning the efficacy of the Voting Rights Act in Virginia.
At an Associated Press briefing last week, Cuccinelli said, "I do not think, in this day and age, that we need pre-clearance from the [Department of Justice]."
Cuccinelli was referring to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which requires Virginia and other states with a history of race discrimination to submit to the Department of Justice any modifications made to federal, state or local election plans.  DOJ must then approve changes to make certain they are not unfair to minority voters, a process referred to as “pre-clearance.”
The 2011 Virginia General Assembly, which convenes in January, will be responsible for redrawing the state’s 11 congressional districts, as well as the 40 Senate and 100 House of Delegates seats.
In the statement below, ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis responds to the attorney general’s remarks.

In 2006, Congress addressed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was due to expire in 2007.  After collecting information from voting experts and holding extensive public hearings, Congress concluded that the risk of racial discrimination in the electoral process was still great in many states, including Virginia.

As a result, in July 2006 a bipartisan Congress overwhelmingly renewed Section 5 for 25 years.  The vote was 98-0 in the Senate and 390-33 in the House of Representatives.

Virginia has come a long way since Jim Crow, but recent history and lingering vestiges of racial discrimination in the electoral process justify continued federal oversight.

Virginia, for example, was the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards, waiting until the mid-1990s to repeal a law mandating appointed school boards.  At the well-documented 1901 constitutional convention, delegates explicitly rejected a change to elected school boards because they feared it would enable minority candidates to hold public office.

Virginia maintained poll taxes and literacy tests, also hallmarks of Jim Crow, until forced to abandon them.

In 1991, the Virginia General Assembly invested a half-million dollars in new equipment and expertise for redrawing state and federal election districts, only to conclude that an African-American majority congressional district could not be drawn.  After the ACLU and the NAACP demonstrated that such a district could indeed be drawn and threatened to file a lawsuit if it weren’t, legislators redrew the boundaries of the Third Congressional District, giving African-Americans a majority vote.  From that district, Virginia elected its first African-American representative since Reconstruction.

In the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century, felon disenfranchisement was used to suppress the African-American vote, but over the last 25 years it has been abandoned by nearly every state.  Currently, only Virginia and Kentucky still permanently disenfranchise all felons, requiring an act of the governor for voting rights to be restored.   In Virginia today, African-Americans are eight to ten times more likely to be disenfranchised as whites.

Other than felon disenfranchisement, there have been few serious problems with race discrimination in the electoral process in Virginia in recent years.  But the ACLU of Virginia, Congress, and election experts across the nation agree that Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is likely to be the reason for that.  The attorney general is simply wrong to believe that Virginia should not be subject to Section 5.

Contact: Executive Director Kent Willis, 804-644-8022