Virginia restoration of felons' votes: Redemptive justice or political ploy?

GOP leaders are set to file a lawsuit to stop the restoration of civic rights to convicted criminals who have finished their sentences.

Gary Cameron/Reuters/File
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, shown here speaking to supporters following his election, signed an order restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their sentences in a move that could help the Democratic nominee in November's presidential election.

Virginia Republicans are preparing a legal challenge to Gov. Terry McAuliffe's (D) recent executive order to restore voting rights to around 206,000 convicted felons ahead of the November presidential elections.

GOP leaders announced they would file a lawsuit saying they saw Governor McAuliffe's decision as a politically motivated effort to help his friend and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton win the purple state in the general election.

"Gov. McAuliffe's flagrant disregard for the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law must not go unchecked," state Senate majority leader Thomas Norment (R) said in a statement. He pointed out that McAuliffe's predecessors and previous attorneys general had examined the issue and determined Virginia's governor cannot issue blanket restorations.

Republicans have hired Charles Cooper, an attorney based in Washington, D.C., who defended California's ban on gay marriage before the US Supreme Court in 2013. They did not state a deadline for filing the lawsuit. They said it would not be paid for using taxpayer money.

Republicans are concerned that the move is a ploy to swell the ranks of Democratic voters enough to sway the state in Mrs. Clinton's favor. 

Given the bulk of prison inmates are from minority groups, they would likely follow traditional voting trends by supporting the Democrat nominee. However, even if every one of the more than 200,000 ex-felons registered to vote they would make up less than 1 percent of potential voters.

A spokesman for McAuliffe said Republicans have yet to reveal any specific constitutional objections to the executive order.

"The governor is disappointed that Republicans would go to such lengths to continue locking people who have served their time out of their democracy," Brian Coy said in a statement. "These Virginians are qualified to vote and they deserve a voice, not more partisan schemes to disenfranchise them."

In 2010, a lawyer for former Gov. Tim Kaine (D) said the restoration of felon rights must be done on a case-by-case basis. Mark Rubin wrote in a letter at the time that a blanket order restoring voting rights would be a "rewrite of the law."

Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida are the only states that dispossess felons of their voting rights for life unless a state official grants them back, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. Such policies make black Americans of voting age four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, according to the group.

McAuliffe believes someone who has served their time should be given a second opportunity to exercise their civic duties. He has also said he's positive that the law gives him the authority after consulting with legal and constitutional experts, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat.

McAuliffe's order lets all Virginia felons who completed their probation or parole by April 22 vote, run for public office, serve on a jury, and become a notary public.

The governor says he plans to act each month to restore the rights of felons who meet all the requirements.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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