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GOP wants a say on restoring voting rights to 200,000 Virginia felons

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond on April 22, 2016. (Mark Gormus/AP)

Virginia's legislature should have a say in whether more than 200,000 ex-convicts get their voting rights restored ahead of the fall presidential election, Republican leaders said Tuesday as they called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe to convene a special General Assembly session.

The GOP leaders were reacting to an executive order that McAuliffe (D) announced Friday, which instantly restored the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences and been released from supervised probation or parole.

McAuliffe and supporters said the move would advance civil rights and help reintegrate former convicts.

Republican critics saw it as a political favor to one of McAuliffe’s closest friends and allies, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters. One in four African Americans in the swing state had been banned from voting because of laws restricting the rights of those with convictions.

In a letter, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said the sweeping voting change was too important for a governor to impose on his own.

“This is a matter of great consequence,” the legislative leaders said in their letter. “The people, through their elected representatives, deserve the opportunity to have their voices heard on this matter.”

The governor, who has the power to call special sessions, is free to ignore their request, and McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said he would ignore it.

“Given that they have no specific role to play in this particular matter, Governor McAuliffe does not see a valid need to reconvene the General Assembly to discuss an issue that does not relate to their constitutional duties,” Coy said in an email.

The House and Senate can call themselves into session if a super-majority of legislators agrees — something that is unlikely to happen in the closely divided Senate.

Republicans also could turn to the courts to try to undo McAuliffe’s action. Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said Tuesday that Republicans continue to weigh all options.

The letter from Howell and Norment seems intended to keep a spotlight on the issue — and to highlight that McAuliffe’s order, which also enables felons to serve on juries and run for public office, covers people convicted of rape, murder and other violent crimes.

They ask for “a full and detailed report of all 206,000 convicted felons whose rights have been restored, including but not limited to names, offense or offenses committed, and length of any sentence, probation or parole.” The letter also seeks details on fines, court costs and restitution to victims.

The governor will not indulge that request either, Coy said.

“The Constitution plainly excludes restoration of rights orders from any reporting requirement to the General Assembly,” and the information sought “would no doubt be used to fuel the demonization and demagoguery that has characterized much of the response from certain quarters,” Coy said in his email.

Virginia is one of 11 states that bar ex-offenders from voting unless they receive individual exemptions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.

McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, made sweeping changes to simplify and speed the application process for nonviolent offenders. McAuliffe continued that effort, further simplifying the application, reclassifying some serious drug crimes and lifting the requirement that ex-offenders pay outstanding court costs and fees before being allowed to vote.