- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Virginia officials should have obtained federal approval before they closed 12 Department of Motor Vehicle branches, according to a letter from the Office of Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.
In the letter obtained yesterday by The Washington Times, the Attorney General's Office told Delegate Allen Louderback, Luray Republican, the Federal Voting Rights Act was broken when the branches were closed because citizens register to vote at motor vehicle branches, as required by federal law.
"It is my view that a change in the hours of operation of any Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles customer service center is required to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance under [the] Federal Rights Voting Act to evaluate its potential impact to minority voters," wrote Christopher Nolen, special counsel to the attorney general and chief of opinions section.
However, Mr. Nolen also said the letter is only an opinion from an attorney general deputy and does not carry the same weight as a letter from Mr. Kilgore.
Brian Matt, a spokesman for the DMV, could not comment on whether the agency received federal approval.
Mr. Nolen said yesterday that commonwealth and Justice Department officials are talking about how to close the offices while complying with the federal law. Though motorists can register to vote at all 12 branches, only the Warrenton branch has a registrar.
Last month Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, announced that he would close the branches to help reduce the commonwealth's $1.5 billion budget deficit.
The DMV was among the hardest hit state agencies. In addition to the closing, the remaining branches are closed Wednesday, employees were laid off, and services and hours were reduced.
Mr. Nolen said the Attorney General's Office is also investigating whether the reduction in hours complies with federal law.
"Within the next 24 hours we will be submitting the necessary preclearance for all the hourly changes," said Tim Murtaugh, press secretary for Mr. Kilgore, a Republican.
He also said Justice officials are likely to approve the changes, but lawmakers are still concerned.
"Because these are places to register to vote, we need to make sure we are getting justice," said Speaker-elect William Howell, Stafford Republican.
Mr. Louderback said he was meeting with officials from the DMV today to find a solution.
"I am concerned that we are denying access to voting rights to some people,"he said.
Republican legislators also want to know whether partisan politics played a part in which branches were closed. Of the dozen branches eliminated, 11 are in the districts of Republican lawmakers.
Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Mr. Warner, said the decision to close the branches was made by motor-vehicle administrators and that partisan politics played no role.
"DMV took an 11 percent cut, which is straight down the middle of all the cuts made," she said. "The determinations were made by the agency. The governor just made sure that no region was disproportionately affected."


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