Virginia restores voting rights for 13,000 felons

Following a ruling from the state's high court that prohibited enfranchising felons en masse, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has individually restored the voting rights of some 13,000 felons.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe speaks to supporters during his election night victory rally in Tyson's Corner, Va., in November 2013. The Virginia governor has been seeking to restore the voting rights of convicted felons ahead of November's presidential election.

After the Virginia Supreme Court ruled in July that governors couldn’t restore the voting rights of felons en masse, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vowed the 13,000 felons that registered through the executive order he issued would be able to cast their ballots come November.

The Democratic governor made good on his promise Monday. His administration processed the paperwork of the each of the 13,000 persons over the last month, Governor McAuliffe said while standing in front of the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial. 

"These individuals are gainfully employed. They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop in our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior second-class citizens," he said.

The felons can also serve on a jury, run for public office, and become notaries public, said McAuliffe.

In April, McAuliffe was sued by Republican lawmakers for signing an executive order for the enfranchisement of 200,000 felons en masse. Republicans said McAuliffe violated the constitution, pointing to the words "person" and "his civil rights" in the document as evidence that governors can only "remove political disabilities" individually.

In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court agreed. It said governors must review enfranchisement on a case-by-case basis, and report "'particulars of every case' and state his "'reasons' for each pardon."

Republican House Speaker William Howell, who sued McAuliffe over the order, said lawmakers will review the process the governor laid out Monday to ensure it meets the requirements the court established last month.

At issue in Virginia is how the enfranchisement of tens of thousands of felons will sway the presidential election. More than one in five African-Americans in Virginia are disenfranchised, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit that focuses on criminal justice. McAuliffe has said the reinstatement of felons’ voting rights would distance Virginia from Jim Crow laws that have haunted it.

But Republicans have pointed to McAuliffe’s relationship with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and the importance of Virginia to this coming election, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Patrik Jonsson reported in April, when McAuliffe signed the order.  

Mr. McAuliffe is the former Democratic National Committee head and a long-time adviser to Mrs. Clinton, for whom he just raised $2 million at his home. What’s more, Virginia could be a deciding swing state in the November presidential election. Those facts have only raised the stakes, making the enfranchisement order a “transparent” attempt to sway an election through “reckless abuse of executive power,” in the words of Ed Gillespie, a Virginia gubernatorial candidate.

Yet by invoking the Emancipation Proclamation and noting that 1 out of every 5 black Virginians had lost the right to vote, McAuliffe, political observers say, has likely staked the high ground on an evolving debate by demanding what the Richmond Times-Dispatch called a 'historic shift away from a … policy of lifetime disenfranchisement ….'

Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida are the only states that still remove voting rights for felons for life unless a state official restores them, making McAuliffe’s actions all the more historic.

The debate in Virginia also reflects a trend across the country about voting rights, as Mr. Jonsson wrote for the Monitor.  

While the franchise debate is a contentious one, a growing number of states, many of them with Republican governors, are rethinking the extent to which voting is a privilege that can be taken away from citizens who break laws. Evidence from the American Parole and Probation Association suggests that restoring the franchise reduces recidivism. Though a future Republican governor in Virginia could undo McAuliffe’s order, past Republican governors have also taken steps to ease the impact of the 1902 amendment that barred felons from the vote. ...

McAuliffe made the state the 20th to ease voting restrictions for ex-felons in the past two decades. Fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation. Only two, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated Americans to absentee-vote. Three states – Florida, Kentucky and Iowa – still permanently revoke voting rights for felons.

One exception is Iowa, as Max Lewontin reported for the Monitor in June. The Iowa Supreme Court upheld a law that requires felons to apply to have their voting rights restored.

Meanwhile, in Virginia McAuliffe has pledged to continue to process the paperwork of felons, announcing the names of the newly enfranchised on the 15th of each month. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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