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Ruling raises questions about Virginia Voter I.D. law

RICHMOND—The U.S. Supreme Court’s Voting Rights Act ruling Tuesday puts Virginia in “a little bit of limbo,” said Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The court effectively struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, ruling that Congress must rewrite the formula that determines which states must still get federal approval for voting changes.

Virginia is one of those states whose past racial history has required federal approval, called preclearance, for any new voting laws or district line changes.

At least one pending Virginia law is now thrown into question by the ruling.

Virginia needs federal permission for its new law requiring voters to show a photo ID at the polls. That law doesn’t take effect for another year.

Speaking on WTOP radio minutes after the court’s decision, Gov. Bob McDonnell said the ruling could put Virginia’s new photo ID law in “a little bit of limbo” because of the preclearance requirement.

“Until the Congress passes a new formula, there’s nothing for us to submit to preclearance,” McDonnell said.

But in a statement sent to reporters later in the afternoon, his spokesman said that a review of the opinion suggests the photo ID law wouldn’t be delayed by the ruling.

“Much depends on whether or not Congress takes action to replace the stricken Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act,” said spokesman Paul Shanks. “We will be working with the Attorney General’s Office to determine what, if any, impact the decision will have on the implementation of this legislation in July of 2014.”

While the court urged Congress to update the formula used since the 1960s to decide which jurisdictions are subject to the law’s preclearance requirements, there’s no timeline for Congress to do so. Nor is it certain that Virginia would still be subject to the preclearance requirements under a new formula.

Both of Virginia’s senators issued statements promising to work quickly to develop a new formula.

“It is critical that we have an electoral system that is open, fair and not overly burdensome,” said Sen. Mark Warner. “I am deeply disappointed in today’s Supreme Court ruling, and I will work with my colleagues in Congress to move quickly to put in place a fair process that ensures our elections are open to all.”

Sen. Tim Kaine said the court’s ruling “raises serious concerns, particularly with regard to how voting rights will be protected in the interim in places where discrimination still exists.”

While Congress works to develop a new formula, Kaine said, “I would advocate that jurisdictions continue to submit voting changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance as a sign to their own constituents that they are committed to ensuring equal voting rights.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed to address racial discrimination in voting, at a time when minority voters faced poll taxes, poll tests and other barriers to voting.

States and localities with low voter registration, low turnout and a history of such tests and barriers were required to submit for federal approval any voting law changes, as well as the legislative and congressional district boundaries that are redrawn every 10 years after the census.

The formula determining which states and localities must undergo preclearance of those laws and district lines is in Section 4 of the Act.

Tuesday’s court ruling essentially strikes down the formula, which has remained unchanged for decades, in part because justices said the formula was outdated, but also in part because they said the preclearance requirement takes some powers away from certain states and not from others. That was justified in the 1960s and 1970s, justices wrote, but isn’t necessarily now.

Voting-rights advocacy groups, including the NAACP and the ACLU, are disappointed in the ruling and say Virginia has not moved far enough away from its discriminatory past to deserve exemption from federal oversight.

Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga said in a statement that the preclearance requirements had helped block 15 discriminatory voting laws in Virginia between 1982 and 2006.

The Democratic Party of Virginia said the ruling “opens the door to even more barriers for Virginians who wish to exercise their right to vote,” and used this year’s controversial photo ID bill as an example.

Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has argued in the past that Virginia should no longer be subject to preclearance requirements.

On Tuesday, he and other elected Republicans—McDonnell, House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Tommy Norment—issued statements in which they said discrimination in voting wouldn’t be tolerated and that the court ruling didn’t touch on parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit discrimination.

“The members of the General Assembly simply will not tolerate redistricting that sanctions discrimination,” Howell said.

Cuccinelli said that despite the court’s decision, “legal mechanisms remain in place to safeguard the vote of Virginia’s citizens” and that as attorney general, he’ll uphold existing anti-discrimination laws.

His opponent, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, said in a statement that he’s disappointed with the ruling.

“Unlike my opponent, I believe that, while we have made progress, protections are still necessary to ensure that Virginians are allowed to exercise their right to vote without the risk of disenfranchisement,” McAuliffe said.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028