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Nice Digits: What's the Deal With DMV's Low Number License Plates? 

Low-number license plates for the politically connected: At the Department of Motor Vehicles, no one’s exactly sure how the tradition started. But by the time Gov. John Dalton’s administration began in 1978, the agency had run out of available plates with just three digits.

“The practice has been in place for as long as anyone can remember,” DMV spokeswoman Brandy Brubaker says.

It was a peculiar use of state time and resources, but it was deemed important enough that the governor’s office and the DMV should devise a solution, allowing Dalton and future governors to hand out special license plates to their supporters. The DMV added a letter — A, in Dalton’s case — before the three digits, and the plates kept flowing.

If you see a B in front of a number less than 500, then it means the plate was issued under Gov. Gerald Baliles, with a G designating Gov. George Allen, a J for Jim Gilmore, a K for Tim Kaine and a W for Mark Warner.

Bob McDonnell went with a small M stacked over a small C. He didn’t begin issuing his plates until after scandal had broken out around his administration. And it’s unclear if that affected the popularity of his special-issue plates.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from Style, the DMV said it would charge more than $800 for a search of its system to find out how many plates McDonnell’s administration issued. Style declined to pay the fee.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s spokeswoman, Rachel Thomas, says the governor has issued 250 plates to supporters. They’re designated with a small T stacked over a small M either before or after a number less than 500. The special plates cost an additional $10.

Though the governor’s office appealed directly to supporters and staff offering up the plates, Thomas says anyone who wants one can get it by contacting the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office. “Like past administrations,” she says, “the plates are distributed to supporters and staff.”

Thomas also notes that the coveted original low-number plates — the ones not marked by a letter denoting the governor who issued them — also are still distributed by the Secretary of the Commonwealth. How? Although anecdotally, the plates tend to appear on luxury vehicles adorned with political bumper stickers, Thomas says anyone can ask the secretary and he’ll pass the request to the DMV, which will distribute the plates when they become available.

“Are you really writing on this or do you just want a low number plate?” she says.

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