Virginia Republicans vow to take felon voting rights to state's high court

Virginia Republicans say Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe abused his power in restoring voting rights in April to thousands of convicts who have completed their sentences.

Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch/AP/File
Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on April 22. The state's Republican leaders are challenging the legality of the governor's order, and have said they will take the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.

Virginia Republicans say Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe abused his power in restoring voting rights in April to thousands of convicts who have completed their sentences. And they will fight him in the state’s highest court, they said Monday.

GOP leaders are filing a lawsuit in the Virginia Supreme Court to challenge Governor McAuliffe’s executive order, which they say violated the separation of powers by effectively suspending the state's ban on voting by felons. Decades of practice in the state has shown, they say, that governors can restore voting rights only on a case-by-case basis.

"Gov. McAuliffe's executive order defies the plain text of the Constitution, flouts the separation of powers, and has no precedent in the annals of Virginia history. The governor simply may not, with the stroke of the pen, unilaterally suspend and amend the Constitution," their lawyers wrote in the suit.

But with the stroke of a pen, the governor in April issued an executive order that overrode a constitutional amendment barring felons from voting in the state. The majority of the 206,000 beneficiaries of the order are African-American, constituents who historically vote Democratic.

McAuliffe, the former Democratic National Committee head and a long-time adviser to presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, for whom he recently raised $2 million at his home, has been criticized for trying to sway the November elections. Virginia could be a deciding swing state in the November presidential election.

But Virginia’s governor staunchly defends his move, arguing that Republicans are trying to preserve "a policy of disenfranchisement" that has predominantly affected African-Americans, 1 in 5 of whom has lost the right to vote in Virginia, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

"These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities — this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens," McAuliffe said in a statement. "This is simply the latest Republican attack on the voting rights of qualified Virginians who deserve a voice in their society, and we will oppose it vigorously."

A future Republican governor in Virginia could reverse McAuliffe’s order, though he or she may not wish to, as many states have been easing voting restrictions for former felons in the past two decades.

“I think politicians are realizing that integrating people into the process is better than putting up a block wall ... or some type of barrier for people to join the process,” Cory McCray, a Democratic Maryland state delegate who helped extend the right to 44,000 felons in that state earlier this year, told USA Today.

Virginia is the 20th state to have returned voting rights to felons in the past 20 years.

Currently fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation. Two, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote by absentee ballot.

Nationwide, nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting age population, can’t vote because of past criminal activity.

McAuliffe’s order allows every Virginia felon, as of April 22, to vote, to run for public office, to serve on a jury, and to become a notary public after completing a sentence and any supervised release, parole or probation requirements.

Republicans who are filing a petition with the court on Monday say they are eager for the court to addresses the matter before November, though they say there's likely nothing they can do to prevent felons who have already registered to vote from participating in the upcoming primary elections.

Nearly 4,000 felons had signed up to vote as of last week, according to election officials.

Monday's lawsuit is being brought by Virginia House Speaker William Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, along with four other state voters.

This report uses material from the Associated Press.

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