VA Governor McAuliffe to restore voting rights to 200,000 ex-felons via executive order

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe will restore voting rights to over 200,000 ex-felons today via executive order, bypassing the state’s Republican-controlled legislature. As McAuliffe explained, the action will overturn a Civil War-era provision in Virginia’s constitution that aimed to make it more difficult for African-Americans to vote.

Virginia’s policy restricting ex-felons from registering to vote was expanded in 1902 as part of a package of voting restrictions that also included poll taxes and literacy tests.

According to the Sentencing Project, one in five African-Americans in Virginia is disenfranchised due to a past felony conviction, compared to seven percent of the state’s overall population.

Felon disenfranchisement came into vogue in the South following Reconstruction, and Southern states remain less likely to automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons who have completed their sentences. At the time these measures were passed, their justifications often took on explicitly racial connotations. Governor McAuliffe’s office has noted that in 1906, State Senator Carter Glass (who would later be the “Glass” in the Glass-Steagall Act) spoke favorably of Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement policy, saying that it would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”

According to the New York Times, “Virginia is one of four states — the others are Kentucky, Florida and Iowa — that impose the harshest restrictions” for ex-felons who wish to register to vote. Former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear recently enacted an executive order under his powers to grant clemency that had the same effect as Governor McAuliffe’s actions do today, but his order was quickly reversed by newly-elected governor Matt Bevin.

Terry McAuliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

Terry McAuliffe, via Wikimedia Commons

The specific way in which McAuliffe crafted his order, however, means that his action will be difficult to reverse — even more so due to the fact that his term lasts through 2017. By using his power to grant pardons to all ex-felons who have completed parole, even a new governor who rescinded McAuliffe’s order would probably be unable to re-disenfranchise the 200,000 ex-felons who will begin registering to vote later today.

This isn’t the first move Governor McAuliffe has taken to make it easier for ex-felons to register to vote. Last year, through another executive action, Governor McAuliffe removed requirements for ex-felons to pay outstanding court fees as part of the process by which they could get their rights restored, calling it a modern-day poll tax.

However, it will not be his last move to restore voting rights, either. Since his executive order cannot apply to future ex-felons who complete their sentences, McAuliffe plans on issuing similar orders on a monthly basis.

It’s important to note that Virginia is a swing state, and that McAuliffe has close ties to Hillary Clinton, having served as her campaign chairman in 2008, among other things. So, obviously, today’s move is good politics.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t also solid, moral public policy.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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