Defying high court, Va. Gov. McAuliffe moves to restore ex-felons’ voting rights

On April 22, Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe,  realizing his state’s process for restoring voting rights to convicted felons was outdated and  disproportionately hurt African-Americans, issued a sweeping executive order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons.  

Before McAuliffe’s action, felons could only get their rights restored on a cumbersome case-by-case basis.

Republicans howled, accusing McAuliffe of a cheap power grab, and took the governor to court. Had it been upheld, this act would have been a hallmark of his administration.

But on Friday July 22, The Virginia Supreme Court struck down McAuliffe’s sweeping executive order to restore the rights of the felons by a margin of four to three.

The Virginia Supreme Court blasted McAuliffe, saying none of the Commonwealth’s 71 governor’s had tried something as wide in scope as he tried to do.

Only a handful of the people with felony convictions covered by McAuliffe’s move had registered before the court decision.   Following the high court’s ruling, the 11,662 felons who have registered to vote will be removed from the rolls by the end of August.

Before the Virginia Supreme Court ruled, McAuliffe said he was weighing options to see his plan put into place in case the court ruled against his plan. 

McAuliffe is now working on restoring the rights individually to 13,000 people as fast as possible, by means of signing grants of clemency. The governor has a data base that has been fine tuned since its inception to identify felons who have served jail time and probation and paid court fees.

McAuliffe didn’t mince words about the ruling.

“Once again, the Virginia Supreme Court has placed Virginia as an outlier in the struggle for a civil and human rights,” the governor said in a written statement. “It’s a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would file a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote. And I cannot accept that this overtly political action could in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.”  

In the view of many civil rights activists, Republicans challenged McAuliffe because they don’t want any more people who potentially will vote Democratic.

The GOP’s motives are rooted in racism. 

Virginia has a record of voter suppression after the Civil War, among other things by requiring voters to pay a poll tax.

After the Civil War, the Underwood Convention of 1867 granted the right to vote to any man 21 years of age or older. The only provisions to prevent voting was in case of a corruption or treason conviction, participating in a duel, being “an idiot or lunatic.”   

But he century wasn’t completed before these rights were being rolled back by Redeemer Democrats. Political leaders actively campaigned in the state to purge Virginia voter rolls of Black voters. Denying felons the right to reclaim their rights in anchored not only in Jim Crow, but the state charter. Virginia made this dreadful decision during the 1902 Constitutional Convention to destroy African-American voting. 

Marty Jackson got his voting rights restored four years ago. “No one should have to serve their time and then struggle in society just to be accepted as a human being,” Jackson said. “Having your rights back mean you feel certain there will be other opportunities ahead of you. It motivated me to look forward to the future. Now I don’t feel like a returning citizen, I feel like a true citizen. I’m grateful that Governor Terry McAuliffe did this so that men and women who are returning back to society can feel more capable of being a part of their communities.”

Photo: Michael Fleshman/Flickr (CC)


Art Cook
Art Cook

Art Cook has lived most of his life in southern Virginia. He likes to write about the events he comes across near where he lives. Art is interested in civil rights and the Labor movement. He loves a good barbecue sandwich and a glass of iced tea to wash it down.