RICHMOND — Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Thursday that he had broken the record for restoring voting rights to convicted felons, calling it his “proudest achievement” as governor.
McAuliffe (D) said he had individually restored rights to 156,221 Virginians, surpassing the previous record-holder by a nose. As governor of Florida from 2007 to 2011, Charlie Crist restored voting rights to 155,315 felons, according to figures that McAuliffe’s office obtained from Florida.
Today Crist, who has evolved from Republican to Independent to Democrat, is a freshman member of Congress. His spokeswoman, Erin Moffet, said Crist would not mind seeing his record fall.
“I know my boss would congratulate Governor McAuliffe on the work he’s doing in his state, as well,” she said.
“Expanding democracy in Virginia has been my proudest achievement during my time as Governor,” McAuliffe said in a written statement. “Over the course of the last year, I have had the privilege to meet with many of the men and women affected by this order, and their stories inspired us as we continued this fight against the hostile opponents of progress.”
McAuliffe’s road to that milestone has been long and complicated. A year ago this month, he announced that he had restored voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed their sentences.
Virginia is one of just a handful of states that automatically bans felons from voting and requires individual exemptions to restore that right. Civil rights groups hailed his action as a way of removing a last vestige of Virginia’s Jim Crow era because the restriction affected African Americans disproportionately.
Republicans, incensed that McAuliffe restored rights to violent and nonviolent offenders alike, said the move was really a bid to add Democratic-friendly voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential elections, when the governor’s close friend and political ally, Hillary Clinton, was on the ballot.
Republicans also found that the McAuliffe administration had mistakenly restored rights to 132 sex offenders in custody and to several convicted killers on probation in other states. They sued and won, convincing the state Supreme Court that McAuliffe had overstepped his clemency powers. It found that the governor can only restore voting rights on a case-by-case basis, not en masse.
Undeterred, McAuliffe moved ahead with a more “individualized” approach that withstood a subsequent court challenge.