Politics or Principles? Virginia Gov. Defies High Court, Will Give Felons Right to Vote

By Published on July 24, 2016

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe has vowed to individually sign 13,000 clemency orders allowing ex-cons to vote, after the Virginia Supreme Court invalidated his executive order restoring voting rights to nearly 200,000 Virginia convicts.

“The men and women whose voting rights were restored by my executive action should not be alarmed,” the governor said in a statement. “I will expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote. And I will continue to sign orders until I have completed restoration for all 200,000 Virginians.”

The move could have a significant impact on the 2016 presidential election. McAuliffe’s action extends ballot access to a largely Democratic constituency in a key swing state. The governor is a long time friend of presumptive Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

The governor and other Virginia Democrats allege the state’s blanket ban on ex-felon voting is the strongest remaining vestige of Jim Crow-era disenfranchisement. Fully one in five black Virginians are forbidden from voting because of the ban.

The governor issued a sweeping executive order restoring voting rights to 200,000 convicted felons in April. The order also restored the right to serve on a jury or stand for public office. The Virginia Supreme Court struck down the law on Friday, ruling that such a broad and indiscriminate extension of clemency was not imagined by the clemency power in the state constitution.

“Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request,” Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons wrote for the majority. The justices further directed the state elections commission to scrub Virginia voting rolls of 13,000 ex cons who had registered to vote in the interim period between McAuliffe’s order and the court decision.

The governor called the ruling a “disgrace” which solidified Virginia’s place at the rearguard of the advance toward civil rights.

“My faith remains strong in all of our citizens to choose their leaders, and I am prepared to back up that faith with my executive pen,” he said. “The struggle for civil rights has always been a long and difficult one, but the fight goes on.”


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