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.