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Posted at 11:02 AM ET, 12/10/2010

Voting Rights Act bail-out 'not a priority' for Cuccinelli, spokesman says

By Rosalind S. Helderman

Cuccinelli (Image via Wikipedia)

There are avenues an attorney general could pursue to end federal oversight of Virginia's legislative redistricting under the Voting Rights Act, but a spokesman for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R) said he doesn't plan to do so.

"It's not a priority for him or the office," said Cuccinelli spokesman Brian Gottstein. "We're not going to be pursuing anything on this."

Cuccinelli has drawn fire from Democrats this week for comments to reporters Tuesday in which he said that he thinks Virginia has outgrown the need to submit its legislative maps to the U.S. Justice Department for approval, as required by the 1965 act that intended to protect racial minorities in southern states.

Cuccinelli said he thinks legislators are no longer motivated by racism in drawing lines and that another remedy provided in the act -- which allows individuals to sue if they believe districts are racially discriminatory -- provides necessary protections. Those comments got Cuccinelli labeled "ignorant" and "downright dangerous" by Democratic Party of Virginia Chairman Brian Moran. Sen. Don McEachin (D-Richmond) called them "inappropriate, risky and reckless."

If Cuccinelli wanted to push the issue, the Voting Rights Act does provide a mechanism for states and counties that are covered by its provisions to "bail-out," said University of Virginia law school professor A.E. Dick Howard.

The path is not easy -- Virginia would have to compile a decade-long record showing, among other things, that it had obtained federal approval for every voting change it had made during the time span. The requirements apply to the state as a whole, as well as to every governmental unit within it.

No state has yet sought or received release from the act -- but 18 Virginia counties once covered by the act have been removed from its requirements, Howard said.

"The requirements for bailout are so stringent that it's hard to imagine a covered state being able to satisfy them," Howard said.

Another option, Howard said, would be to file a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the statute. The 15th Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the government from denying the right to vote based on race. It allows Congress to make "appropriate" laws to ensure no discrimination takes place.

A constitutional challenge, Howard said, would probably argue that the act was "appropriate" when it was adopted in the 1960s, because of Virginia's long history of discrimination. But the suit would argue that the law is no longer an appropriate exercise of congressional power because of the passage of time and the change in attitudes about race in Virginia.

Gottstein reiterated that Cuccinelli thinks Virginia should no longer be covered by the provisions of the statute that require federal approval of districts. But he said the attorney general has no plans to seek a "bail-out" for the state or to file a lawsuit. Instead, he believes Congress should amend the law.

Congress voted to extend the Voting Rights Act for 25 years in 2006.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | December 10, 2010; 11:02 AM ET
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