Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe did not let the Supreme Court of Virginia or Republican lawmakers get in the way of restoring the voting rights of 13,000 felons.
The court had blocked the Democratic governor’s executive order issued in April restoring voting rights to 200,000 felons with completed sentences. With Virginia seen as a swing state in the presidential election, the broad clemency effort was criticized by GOP leaders as a way for McAuliffe to help longtime friend Hillary Clinton by adding the voters to registration rolls ahead of the November election.
Republicans had challenged McAuliffe’s move in court and successfully blocked the effort. But 13,000 of the 200,000 felons had already registered to vote so the state was ordered by the court to place their names on its list of banned voters again.
The governor announced Monday that he had signed the restoration orders last week for the 13,000 felons and would continue doing the same for a total of approximately 200,000, the Washington Post reported.
“I personally believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every single human being,” McAuliffe said at a ceremony at the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial in Richmond,. “These individuals are gainfully employed. They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop at our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior, second-class citizens.”
Virginia GOP lawmakers had complained that McAuliffe’s initial executive order included both violent and nonviolent offenders and they were treated en masse instead of case by case. The state’s high court accused the governor of overstepping his clemency powers.
“The General Assembly will carefully review Governor McAuliffe’s process to determine if he followed the legal requirements,” Republican state House Speaker William J. Howell said. “From the beginning, we have done nothing more than hold the governor accountable to the constitution and the rule of law. The Supreme Court’s decision vindicated our efforts and we will continue to fulfill our role as a check on the excesses of executive power.”
McAuliffe believed his original order would have moved Virginia away from lifetime disenfranchisement that hits African-Americans hard, the Post reported. Many of the affected felons were African-Americans or Latinos, voter groups that have overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates in the past.
“The Virginia constitution is clear: I have the authority to restore civil rights without limitation. But the court dismissed the clear text of the constitution,” McAuliffe said Monday. “In other words, we were messing around with the way things have always been done in the Old Dominion.”
But Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment placed the blame squarely on McAuliffe and his apparent disregard for the law, according to the Post.
“Had the governor followed the Constitution of Virginia on April 22 when he initially attempted this, those affected by today’s announcement might not have endured the roller-coaster of bureaucratic incompetence his executive overreach exposed,” the Republican senator said.
“This episode should serve as a cautionary tale for those who would declare policies by fiat, circumventing the protections enshrined in the Constitution of Virginia,” Norment said. “The Governor’s decision to lash out at the Court and the General Assembly after his unconstitutional order was overturned was petulant and imprudent. He, and he alone, is responsible for the fiasco that ensued after his April 22 announcement.”