Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s (D) unexpected decision to give a blanket, automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-felons – the order covers those convicted of all crimes, non-violent to the most heinous – has upended the 2017 contests for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
The state’s pundits have been calling McAuliffe’s surprise decision — he never hinted at this while campaigning — a politically motivated effort to help longtime friend Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president. This is based on their belief that African Americans will benefit the most, and skin color determines voting choices today. This belittles all involved.
Given the 2016 national polls, Clinton doesn’t need McAuliffe’s help in Virginia. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is trailing badly in the Old Dominion.
However, regarding 2017, McAuliffe’s assertion of possessing such sweeping constitutional power defies the positions of his predecessors.
Indeed, in the 1980s, Democrats tried to get Virginia’s constitution changed because they believed it didn’t give the governor the blanket authority McAuliffe now claims. At some point the Virginia Supreme Court will rule, perhaps even a federal court.
But whatever the legal decision, whatever the policy debate, it will be lose-lose in terms of the politics of 2017 for the Democratic ticket.
In just 24 hours, McAuliffe’s order dramatically changed the state’s political landscape.
When the campaign managers for Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D) and Attorney General Mark Herring (D) went to bed yesterday, they were all smiles. No incumbent Virginia attorney general has been defeated for reelection. Northam, too, seemed to be in the catbird seat.
In Virginia’s modern, two-party age, only two sitting lieutenant governors — Henry Howell, an Independent, and Don Beyer, a Democrat – have been defeated in a general election for governor.
Howell, the famed Norfolk populist whose campaigns against the poll tax and other anti-black voting laws infuriated Virginia’s Old Guard, had the governorship won until the state’s power structure persuaded former Mills Godwin to switch from the Democrats to the GOP. Howell lost a bitterly close race. Beyer lost to a sitting attorney general. No sitting lieutenant governor has lost a gubernatorial race to anyone who previously had lost a statewide contest.
Today, the Virginia GOP is at a historic low in the two-party era, holding none of the five offices elected statewide. Their leading 2017 candidates for governor and attorney general both lost statewide runs before.
One of us, Paul Goldman, has been a leader in voting rights restoration. Leading advocates view the issue differently regarding those convicted of violent felonies compared to those convicted of non-violent felonies. This distinction had long been seen as the right one in Virginia, since voters have historically supported more restrictive restoration-of-rights laws.
Rallying public support for reform had a better chance of permanent success when focusing on those convicted of non-violent crimes.
It seemed risky to combine the issues involving non-violent ex-offenders with those of violent ex-felons — certainly when it comes to an automatic, blanket restoration of any rights to all felons through executive order. There seemed little public support for automatically restoring voting rights to those who committed the most heinous crimes.
So why did McAuliffe lump the two together, especially when Republicans and Democrats were willing to address the rights issue with non-violent felons?
Republicans will use this distinction in the 2017 governor’s race. Clearly, any 2017 GOP gubernatorial candidate is going to promise to rescind, at a minimum, McAuliffe’s executive order as it applies to violent felons.
What will the Democrats say?
Politics is hardball: No one wins politically defending violent felons.
Before today, the GOP had no real issue heading into 2017.
Now they do. In our view, the overwhelming majority of Virginians don’t want a blanket restoration of voting rights for violent felons.
The current approach, used by all previous governors, has been to restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis. McAuliffe had sped up and simplified the process, which is what voters expected from this him.
If McAuliffe’s approach had been limited to non-violent felons, it would be a far easier political sell. But he decided to include violent criminals as well. This could prove a political bridge too far.
It may seem a small issue in the greater scheme right now. But the Governor’s Mansion, the lieutenant governorship and the attorney general’s offices have been lost on far less.