Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in Springfield on June 1. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has been dealt a huge blow by the Virginia Supreme Court, which, in a 4-3 ruling Friday, overturned his use of an executive order to restore voting rights to about 206,000 convicted felons.

The court’s decision creates chaos of all kinds, from legal uncertainty and bureaucratic nightmares to continued polarization of state politics, which, unfortunately, now looks like the Democratic governor’s legacy.

For years, governors read the state constitution to believe that any re-enfranchisement of voting rights for felons who have served their sentence must be done on an individual, case-by-case basis.


Backed by Attorney General Mark Herring (D) and A. E. “Dick” Howard, a constitutional scholar from the University of Virginia, McAullife in April used sweeping executive power to restore the voting rights of felons who had served their sentences, many of whom had completed their sentences a decade ago.


Nearly a quarter of the state’s black population can’t vote because of felony convictions, according to The Post. McAuliffe said his aim was to move the state away from the racism that had shrouded its history of slavery, Jim Crow laws and Massive Resistance to court-ordered school integration.


His major Republican opponents in the General Assembly, House Speaker William Howell of Stafford and Sen. Tommy Norment of Williamsburg, immediately launched a counter-attack.


They claimed that McAuliffe had used executive orders in a way that surpasses the state constitution and that his aim was to swell voting rolls with supporters of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, whose vice presidential running mate is Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.


Now, the court has touched off a number of hot messes:

  •  So far, 11,662 convicted felons have had registered to vote. The court says that up to 13,000 voter registrations must be cancelled. Retaliating, McAuliffe has vowed to personally sign individual rights restorations for the first batch of 13,000, followed by the rest of the 193,000 or so, one by one. Rights groups say they are giving McAuliffe lots of pens and pencils to help him. In a statement, he said, “My faith remains strong in all of our citizens to choose their leaders, and I am prepared to back up that faith with my executive pen. The struggle for civil rights has always been a long and difficult one, but the fight goes on.”
  • The court’s decision was clearly split 4-3 on racial lines, with Justices Cleo E. Powell and S. Bernard Goodwyn, the only African Americans on the court, among the dissenters.
  • The Republican victory with the court ruling taints McAuliffe, a Clinton intimate who was once head of the Democratic National Committee. This may make campaigning harder for Clinton and Kaine in Virginia, a key swing state that had been looking pretty blue.
  • The fallout spills into Richmond mayoral politics. Among the top candidates is Levar Stoney, who, as McAuliffe’s secretary of the commonwealth, had overseen the rights restoration. Joe Morrissey, another Democrat with a flamboyant political history, is using the felons mess to attack Stoney, calling the young African American “inexperienced.”
  • The ruling injects a new kind of poison into the presidential campaign. GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump, manipulating a string of mass killings, has refocused himself as a “law and order” candidate.

This will hurt McAuliffe even more and, in state politics, means there will be no break in the political deadlock between the governor and the General Assembly — until there’s a new governor.

Peter Galuszka is a regular contributor to All Opinions Are Local.