NEWS BRIEF In late April, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced, to great fanfare, that he was restoring voting rights to 200,000 felons who’d been stripped of the franchise when they went to prison. The move won McAuliffe, a Democrat, praise from social-justice advocates, but it inspired an immediate backlash from Republicans in the commonwealth, who vowed to block the move.
In July, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with the GOP, ruling by a 4-3 margin that while the governor had the ability to grant clemency to felons, including restoring voting rights, he did not have the power to do so en masse—such decisions could only be made on a case-by-case basis. Chief Justice Donald Lemons wrote:
Never before, however, have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a sua sponte clemency order of any kind, whether to restore civil rights or grant a pardon, to an entire class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request. What is more, we are aware of no point in the history of the Commonwealth that any Governor has even asserted the power to issue such an order.
McAuliffe, a man known for his irascibility, promised to find a way to restore voting rights anyway, using an autopen to sign individual orders for all 200,000 felons within two weeks. A fortnight came and went with no news.
But on Monday, McAuliffe held a news conference in Richmond to announce he had ordered restoration of voting rights to 13,000 felons who had already registered to vote prior to the state Supreme Court order, and had ordered that they be returned to voting rolls.
Advocates for restoring the voting rights of those felons who have served their time point out that felon disenfranchisement was originally instituted in states like Virginia for the express purpose of stripping African Americans of the vote. Regardless of the motivations today, the result is much the same, because the criminal-justice system disproportionately takes in blacks. Virginia Republicans objected to McAuliffe’s move on the basis it was intended to juice the Democratic vote ahead of the election in what could be a swing state.
The relatively small number of ex-felons who registered to vote immediately—less than 7 percent of the 200,000 people eligible for reinstatement—suggests that electoral impact might not be that great. In any case, McAuliffe said he will process documents to give the remainder of the 200,000 their voting rights as well.