RICHMOND — Armed with an autopen, Gov. Terry McAuliffe said two weeks ago that he had all he needed to swiftly but individually restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.
But McAuliffe (D) has since decided that he needs something else: time.
McAuliffe brought delegates to their feet at last month’s Democratic National Convention when he vowed to defy the state’s highest court, which had just struck down his April executive order to restore voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. He said the 200,000 felons would have their rights back in the space of two weeks.
That self-imposed deadline came and went Monday without a single felon’s rights having been restored.
McAuliffe’s spokesman, Brian Coy, said the governor is taking the time necessary to make sure the rights-restoration orders are handled properly.
“The headline here is, ‘Governor ensures process is correct,’ ” Coy said. “We’re making sure we fully comply with the court’s order, making sure he’s done a review of the individuals in question here, and then he will take action.”
Coy declined to lay out a new timetable but said no action would be taken before the state Board of Elections meets Wednesday to discuss the matter.
McAuliffe was criticized by Republicans and some Democrats for his handling of the original executive order, plagued by multiple errors. The administration accidentally restored rights to 132 sex offenders who were still in custody, for example, as well as to convicted murderers still on probation in other states.
Some of those critics were not sure what to make of the delay.
“We’re waiting to see what he does,” said Del. Rob B. Bell III (R-Albemarle), a candidate for state attorney general in 2017 who has led the charge against McAuliffe’s original clemency order. “Obviously he’s made various public comments about finding a way to circumvent [the court ruling]. . . . We’ll see what he comes up with and we will review it.”
McAuliffe’s slower approach caused some embarrassment for his political action committee, Common Good VA. Last week, it issued a fundraising email trumpeting his action to restore rights.
“After the Republican-led operation to overturn the Governor’s Restoration of Rights, we still managed to individually restore rights to over 30,000 new registered voters in Virginia with a promise not to stop until all 200,000 Virginians have their voice returned!” read the email, which the Richmond Times-Dispatch first reported.
The next day came a correction:
“To clarify, Gov. McAuliffe is in the process of reviewing thousands of cases of Virginians who were stripped of their right to vote by Republicans and the Virginia Supreme Court, but he has not yet restored those individuals’ civil rights. It is his intention to abide by the order of the state Supreme Court and also to grant as many Virginians the right to vote as possible within the law, on an individual basis. The Governor remains committed to ultimately ending the system of discrimination and disenfranchisement in our Commonwealth.”
In April, McAuliffe issued a broad executive order to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences. McAuliffe said the move would help felons rejoin society and move Virginia away from a policy that disproportionately affects the black community.
Republicans said McAuliffe was trying to help Hillary Clinton, a close friend and political ally, by pumping up the voting rolls with black voters. Exit polls show African Americans tend to vote Democratic.
GOP leaders, also upset that the order covered violent felons, contended that McAuliffe had overstepped his authority by restoring those rights en masse instead of individually, as every previous governor had. They filed suit and prevailed with the Supreme Court, which in late July agreed that governors can restore rights only on a case-by-case basis. The court ordered that 13,000 felons who had registered to vote since the April order be removed from the rolls.
McAuliffe, who considered the order one of his biggest achievements, told Virginia convention delegates that he would use an autopen to individually sign orders for all 200,000.
“By the end of this week, I will have restored the rights of all 13,000!” McAuliffe declared at a breakfast for the state party delegation two weeks ago. “And in two weeks, all 206,000 will have their rights back, folks!”