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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  • I have a friend who did a few months in prison (not a felony), read some interviews, and also talked to people who work with inmates. We have a real problem now. When states ran the prison systems there was a state interest in rehabilitation. Helping them get job training and a GED was a priority because we didn’t want them to come back to prison because imprisonment is expensive for the state. But now that the prison systems are being privatized that incentive has disappeared. The more prisoners, the more money the contractors make. Cynical, yes, but also true. Even visitation has been curtailed in many prisons. That’s the last thing we should want for those serving short sentences. They’re in for five years (less with good behavior) and then what? Where will they go? What will they do? We don’t want them committing more crimes. One interview I read with a guy who had done some jail time included this response to the question, “What did you learn in prison?”…”The only thing anyone learns in prison is how to be a better criminal.”

    My opinion about this isn’t sympathy for criminals. If they are guilty, they should do the time. My concern is what’s good for society, and that doesn’t seem to be a consideration when discussing criminal justice any more.

  • While they are serving their sentences or even out on probation, I would agree. But should a 5-10 year sentence mean losing your right to vote for life? That doesn’t seem right.

  • Since states are divided over this issue, some allowing felons who have served their time to vote and others not, I can’t imagine by what grounds they sue, but in doing so they could run the risk of overturning such laws nationwide.

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  • Skye Winspur

    I remember well my arguments with young Republicans in high school (1990s). They kept saying that liberals were making our society “over-litigious” and wanted to sue at the drop of a hat because they didn’t like the way certain people in authority made decisions. Liberals were sore losers and whiners yadayadayada.

    And now we have this and a bevy of other cases just like it going on.

  • Your comment is exactly why I think McAullife did the right thing. Who are you to decide that there is anyone not worthy of a second chance? Many felons are convicted of nonviolent crimes and lose their civil rights for LIFE. Though if your rhetoric were accurate, you would not leave out the sons and daughters of Senators, Congressmen, Police Chiefs. etc. that get a pass, would you?

  • 1. Felon disenfranchisement actually *increases* recidivism, since alienating people from society generally isn’t a good way to generate pro-social behavior: http://scholarship.law.berkeley.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1252&context=blrlj

    2. Just because there are white felons doesn’t mean that felon disenfranchisement laws weren’t enacted in order to suppress black votes. The case I linked to was Virginia’s, but the same holds true for other states in the South. For example, Florida: https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/FL5%20Disenfranchisement%20Provision.pdf

  • Andrew Kline

    The whole system is in place to deter crime. If you were a moron and ignored the law, committed a crime, and caught a felony over it then that is on you. Blame yourself. There are many more people who have chosen to follow the law in order to be able to keep their rights. Also, it’s not a racial thing since there are White felons as well. While some see their “Rights” as a valuable asset there are those whom apparently could care less. So lets not infringe on their right to care less and lose theirs.

  • Partisan venting is all Republicans have left. They have no party platform beyond that.

  • Blogvader

    It makes me chuckle that the Republicans championing this lawsuit are the same folks who thought it was a-okay for McDonnell to sell his office for a car.

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