RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 felons has set off a frenzied effort by advocacy groups to register them in the hope they can swing not just the presidential election but also state politics for the next decade.
More than 2,000 ex-offenders have registered to vote in the two weeks since McAuliffe (D) signed his executive order — many helped by the left-leaning New Virginia Majority advocacy group, labor unions and the NAACP, as well as a hodgepodge of local, civic and religious groups.
Neither the major political parties nor the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are directly involved in the effort at this point.
But in the days after McAuliffe signed the order, canvassers from New Virginia Majority were fanning out across Virginia’s urban crescent, paperwork at the ready, hunting for newly eligible voters.
Because voters in Virginia do not register a party affiliation, it’s difficult to know with certainty which political party will gain from the registration drive. But most observers expect that ex-offenders will identify with the Democratic agenda of criminal-justice reform, higher wages, access to health care and paid sick leave. Estimates vary, but experts say one quarter to one half of the newly eligible voters are African Americans, who tend to vote for Democrats.
Republicans say McAuliffe’s move is clearly designed to help Clinton, his close friend, carry Virginia in November.
“The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton President of the United States,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in a statement last month. “The one-time nature of this action is proof positive of the governor’s political motivations. Instead of adopting a clear policy that can be applied equitably, he is changing the rules in the middle of the 2016 election to ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory.”
McAuliffe’s policy, which he has to maintain by signing a new order every month, can be reversed for future felons by the next governor.
Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, dismissed Republicans’ suggestion. “People say it’s political,” she said. “But for us, this is a moral issue and something that’s beyond any election cycle, beyond any candidate. It’s about giving a voice to a community that has felt voiceless.”
Only a fraction of those eligible are likely to cast ballots on Election Day, but in a state with a recent spate of close elections, even a small number of new voters could affect the outcome.
And a new bloc of voters could decide not only the presidential contest in this swing state but also the winner of the 2017 governor’s race, who will have influence over the upcoming, once-a-decade round of redistricting for state legislative and congressional districts.
One of those new voters is Phil Thomas.
He got caught with $20 worth of crack in a car almost 20 years ago, and long after he quit drugs, the charge haunted him, he said.
“Now I look back on it, it’s the worst mistake I made,” Thomas, 47, said last week while on a break from cutting grass at a public housing development on Richmond’s north side. “Because I’m getting old now, I’m realizing how important [voting] is.”
“Sanders and Clinton are talking about moving the minimum wage to $15, and that would help us,” he said. “Cruz and Trump, they don’t care about us. They just care about the rich,” he continued, referring to the 2016 Republican field before Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas dropped out.
Thomas didn’t realize McAuliffe’s order automatically restored his rights until an organizer from New Virginia Majority told him. He signed the registration form on the spot.
The last presidential ballot Thomas cast was for Bill Clinton. He remembered how it stung when George W. Bush won the White House in an election in which he was barred from voting.
Thomas is just the kind of new voter Democrats want.
“These Virginians have paid their debt to society and now have the right to vote; of course the DPVA will be working to get them registered and earn their votes,” said Emily Bolton, spokeswoman for the Democratic Party of Virginia.
But for now, Democrats say they are relying on third-party groups that specialize in registration.
The strategy allows donors to give to nonprofits without having their contributions count toward federal campaign financing limits the way donations to the Clinton or Sanders campaign would.
It’s also relatively easy for a campaign to outsource voter registration, which, unlike media strategy or door-knocking, doesn’t require extensive training or a mastery of talking points.
Nguyen of New Virginia Majority said her group has spent years in communities where they sometimes encounter one eligible voter for every one hamstrung by a felony.
A few hours after McAuliffe signed the order, canvassers were at a community center and firehouse in low-income Richmond neighborhoods to tell people that felonies — even for violent crimes — no longer meant permanent disenfranchisement. They collected more than 100 applications. In one hour. In the rain.
Virginia Republicans say they want to win over these voters, too, and regularly add newly registered voters to their outreach lists.
“There’s no reason whatsoever to presuppose anyone’s political affiliation, and this is the field we’re playing on,” state Republican Party spokesman David D’Onofrio said.
At the same time, Republicans in the General Assembly are fighting McAuliffe’s order. They hired Charles J. Cooper, a conservative lawyer who defended California’s same-sex marriage ban before the U.S. Supreme Court, to file a legal challenge.
They accuse McAuliffe of executive overreach and have made statements deriding the subjects of his order.
“The governor’s policy applies to criminals who have committed even the most heinous violent crimes including murder, rape, child rape, and kidnapping,” Howell said in the statement last month. “The governor is undermining the strength of the criminal justice system and the sanctity of our civil rights.”
Virginia was one of four states — with Kentucky, Iowa and Florida — that permanently revoked voting rights for felons, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. This year, Maryland automatically restored rights after release from prison; in Virginia, a felon must be finished with prison, probation and parole.
Barring felons from voting is no different from a poll tax or literacy test, McAuliffe said during the Richmond announcement on the south portico of the Capitol, where a gospel choir belted out “The Lord is Blessing Me Right Now.”
“Unfortunately, Virginia has had a long and sad history of actively suppressing the voices of thousands of men and women at the ballot box,” he said, his voice echoing off the white columns of the Thomas Jefferson-designed building.
Since making the grand gesture, the administration has declined to provide details about the 206,000 felons, including where they live and what crimes they committed.
The Virginia Department of Elections denied a Freedom of Information Act request from The Washington Post for the list of names, saying “individual records maintained in the Virginia voter registration system” are exempt from FOIA.
Access to voter registration information is restricted under state law to nonprofits set up for outreach and education, political campaigns, candidates and political parties. As of Wednesday, the department said none of those groups had requested the list.
That doesn’t matter to Karen Fountain, a New Virginia Majority staff member, who searched last week for eligible voters in a Richmond public housing development. Clipboards in hand, she called out to everyone she saw, “Are you registered, baby?”
“This is my proof right here,” she said, unfolding a newspaper with an article about McAuliffe’s order.
Within minutes, she attracted the interest of Louise Benjamin, 49, a petite woman who said an assault charge and other bad choices kept her from pursuing a career in nursing or child care.
Fighting back tears, she said winning back the right to vote eased the shame she had felt for years. “I’m emotional,” she said. “It’s a relief.”
Asked why, she smiled. “It’s important because you have a voice,” she said.
“We don’t like the way the world is, we can fix it.”