RICHMOND — One month after the state Supreme Court threw out his blanket clemency order, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Monday that he has individually restored voting rights to 13,000 felons and is working on doing the same for a total of about 200,000.
McAuliffe (D) said he had found a way to comply with the court’s order while addressing “an issue of basic justice.”
“I personally believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every single human being,” he said beside a civil rights monument on Capitol Square. “These individuals are gainfully employed. They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop at our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior, second-class citizens.”
Republican legislative leaders who successfully sued over McAuliffe’s original order said they will examine his latest restoration effort.
“The General Assembly will carefully review Governor McAuliffe’s process to determine if he followed the legal requirements,” said state House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). “From the beginning, we have done nothing more than hold the governor accountable to the constitution and the rule of law. The Supreme Court’s decision vindicated our efforts and we will continue to fulfill our role as a check on the excesses of executive power.”
With great fanfare in April, McAuliffe issued an executive order that restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences. McAuliffe said his original order would move Virginia away from a harsh lifetime disenfranchisement policy that hits African Americans particularly hard.
Republicans, incensed that it covered violent as well as nonviolent offenders, said the move was really a bid to add Democratic voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential elections, when the governor’s close friend and political ally Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot.
The administration’s implementation of the order was botched; it mistakenly restored rights to 132 sex offenders still in custody as well as to several convicted killers on probation in other states.
Contending that the governor had overstepped his authority by restoring rights en masse rather than individually, GOP legislative leaders took him to court and won. Because 13,000 of the 200,000 felons already had registered to vote, the court ordered the state to once again put their names on its list of banned voters.
Immediately after that ruling, McAuliffe vowed to use an autopen to individually sign orders restoring rights. He promised to do the first 13,000 within a week and all 200,000 within two. But that effort ran into unspecified delays.
On Monday, McAuliffe announced that he had restored voting rights to the 13,000 felons, making them free to register once again. He said he would do the same for the remainder of the 200,000 but offered no timetable.
The difference between McAuliffe’s original action and his current approach is largely procedural. Instead of simply announcing that any felon whose sentence is complete is eligible to vote, the administration now will mail a notice to that effect to each one.
The administration will review each record, but only to confirm that the individual has completed the sentence and any supervised release. McAuliffe will not individually sign the orders or make use of an autopen, but an image of his signature will be printed on each letter, spokesman Brian Coy said.
McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, had instituted a similar approach, automatically sending a letter to felons who met his criteria. But McDonnell did so only for nonviolent felons and required that they pay any fines or restitution. As with his original order, McAuliffe said he will not require payment or distinguish between violent and nonviolent felons.
“Now I know there are those who believe that the governor should make certain individuals wait longer based on the severity of their crime,” he said. “That principle is not found anywhere in our constitution. . . . Those who commit more serious crimes, of course, have longer sentences imposed by a judge or a jury of their peers. Therefore, they must wait longer to have their rights restored.”
McAuliffe discussed his actions in a 15-minute speech that quoted St. Paul and Thomas Jefferson while sharply criticizing the Republicans and state Supreme Court justices who had thwarted his original order. He said Republicans had sued to “suppress” felons’ voices and insisted that he had the authority to grant his original motion.
“The Virginia constitution is clear: I have the authority to restore civil rights without limitation,” he said. “But the court dismissed the clear text of the constitution by simply saying that the rights had never before been restored in this manner here in Virginia. In other words, we were messing around with the way things have always been done in the Old Dominion. But if Virginia did things the way they had always been done . . . our children would still attend segregated schools. . . . Our buses would have seats assigned by race. Interracial marriage would be illegal. Same-sex partners would not be allowed to marry. And Virginians would be forced to pay a tax at the polls on Election Day.”
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) blamed McAuliffe for causing confusion and disappointment for felons who regained their right to vote, lost it and regained it yet again in the space of four months.
“Had the governor followed the Constitution of Virginia on April 22 when he initially attempted this, those affected by today’s announcement might not have endured the roller-coaster of bureaucratic incompetence his executive overreach exposed,” Norment said.
“This episode should serve as a cautionary tale for those who would declare policies by fiat, circumventing the protections enshrined in the Constitution of Virginia. The Governor’s decision to lash out at the Court and the General Assembly after his unconstitutional order was overturned was petulant and imprudent. He, and he alone, is responsible for the fiasco that ensued after his April 22 announcement.”