"The letter was sent without approval by a well-meaning staffer attempting to continue to process requests even while new procedures were being considered," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said.
Last week, Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Polarek and Deputy Secretary Christie Heath told the Post that the decision had already been made to require the essay.
The essay requirement sparked outrage from Democrats and civil-rights groups, with some comparing it to the literacy tests that were used to stop blacks from voting in the past. The Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights formally complained to Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, arguing that approval from the Justice Department was required before Virginia can make a change to voting qualifications.
This isn't the second time this month that McDonnell has angered civil-rights groups before trying to make amends. Last week, he amended a proclamation declaring Confederate History Month and apologized, after the original version did not mention slavery.