Virginia Republicans to sue Governor McAuliffe over rights restoration order

Last month, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring voting rights for over 200,000 ex-felons in the state. Noting that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement laws are rooted in racial animus, Governor McAuliffe promised to issue additional executive orders as ex-felons continued to complete their sentences.

Today, the Associated Press is reporting that Virginia Republicans are planning a legal challenge to McAuliffe’s actions, calling them “an unprecedented view of executive authority.”

The Virginia GOPers bringing the suit have not yet specified exactly what their argument against McAuliffe’s rights restoration order will be, apart from “it’s bad.” When the order was initially announced, legal experts in the state felt that the governor had plenty of authority to issue retroactive pardons to individuals who had previously been incarcerated, though one University of Virginia law professor did tell the New York Times that opponents of the measure could argue that the governor can’t restore rights to an entire class of people all at once.

If that were the case, then McAuliffe would have to restore rights to one person at a time, rather than everyone who has gotten off of parole all at once.

Still, in general it seems as though the challenge to Governor McAuliffe’s executive action is borne more from partisan venting than it is from legal concern. Virginia is poised to be one of the swing-ier states in the 2016 election, and Terry McAuliffe has longstanding ties with Hillary Clinton. While he insisted that he did not consult with Clinton or her campaign before making his move, Virginia Republicans aren’t wrong to point out that there is at least some electoral upside for Democrats if ex-felons, who are disproportionately low-income and non-white, have their voting rights automatically restored.

Can't Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Can’t Vote, via Daniel Lobo / Flickr

Of course, if McAuliffe is restoring ex-felons’ voting rights for political advantage, then Republicans are blocking rights restoration for political advantage, as well. And thus far they haven’t come up with a better reason to keep the policy in place.

This puts them in a tough spot, because partisan advantage says little about whether restoring ex-felons’ voting rights is the right thing to do.  And in this case, Virginia Republicans are backing themselves into a corner in which they are stuck arguing that a policy that was explicitly passed in order to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State” should be saved, simply because they think it will help them in November.

Please proceed.


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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