Of course, people with felonies do not constitute a coherent voting bloc—they have varied backgrounds and beliefs. Much of the Republican uproar around McAuliffe’s order as a political move to benefit Democrats, however, serves as a tacit recognition of the strong racial bias of incarceration. Data from the Sentencing Project show that over half of the population affected by felony disenfranchisement in Virginia is black, a share much higher than the overall demographic share of black people in the state. Virginia is among the worst three states at overall disenfranchisement of black people—Kentucky and Florida also have laws that allow almost no pathway for automatic restoration of rights. Black voters do tend to vote Democrat, and Virginia naturally leans Democratic by affiliation. Any significant infusion of black voters into the electorate could solidify Obama’s 2008 and 2012 results, which showed that mobilizing black voters can deliver it to Democrats.
Is the move politically motivated? Republicans could argue that any move to increase turnout—from making registration easier to increasing early voting and absentee voting—has a political payoff for Democrats. Although polls already have Clinton well in the lead in the 2016 presidential race, Republicans might argue that McAuliffe is influencing congressional races, local races, and ballot measures that are up for grabs this fall as well. Also, McAuliffe’s Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam has indicated his interest in running for governor in 2017, a year in which state House of Delegates seats will be up for election. So, even if the move isn’t politically motivated, it has certain partisan political implications.
Generally, the argument that voting should be difficult has picked up steam in conservative circles. As much of the South turns blue by partisan affiliation, naked efforts to dilute demographic power and decrease turnout serve to maintain Republican strangleholds on most gubernatorial and legislative races in the country. Their concern in Virginia may be premature, however, at least for the 2016 races. Even groups inclined to register newly enfranchised voters may find the effort to track down and register so many people in just a few months overwhelming. Parties are privy to less voter information in Virginia than some other states, and successful mass registration would have to rely on comprehensive data on ex-felons. Also, people with felonies simply vote less frequently than other voters in general, owing to demographic factors including youth and education. While it’s certainly within the realm of possibility that McAuliffe’s move will have a long-term impact on federal, state, and local races, Democrats will have to work hard in the state to capitalize on it.
Those efforts are vital to the long-term viability of McAuliffe’s executive order. There are already grumblings that the governor’s actions are unconstitutional and rely on a technicality to change the spirit of the state constitution. Past Democratic efforts to overturn felony disenfranchisement have focused on amending the constitution, as some scholars and lawmakers have concluded that it does not grant a governor the power to order what McAuliffe did. The governor’s move to include all people with felonies, including violent felonies, in his sweeping order may cost him some of the political capital necessary to implement it. It’s likely that the constitutionality of the action will be determined in court, a decision which could put newly registered voters in legal limbo. Assuming the order is upheld, the fact that McAuliffe cannot actually change the state constitution means that the future of re-enfranchisement will depend on governors consistently issuing new monthly updates. Virginia governors cannot serve consecutive terms. If a Republican wins the office in 2017, or a Democratic successor has a change of heart, it would reset Virginia’s clock.