RICHMOND — Republican legislative leaders on Thursday said they will take Gov. Terry McAuliffe to court once again over his efforts to restore voting rights to felons.
The GOP leaders filed a contempt-of-court motion against McAuliffe (D), who last week announced that he had individually restored rights to 13,000 felons and was working to do the same for a total of more than 200,000.
McAuliffe’s action came in response to a July ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court, which threw out a blanket clemency order that he had issued in April. The governor has described his latest move as a way to comply with the court’s order while addressing “an issue of basic justice.”
But Republicans argue in the court filing that the practical effect of McAuliffe’s workaround is the same as the original, sweeping clemency order that the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.
“After a thorough legal review, it is clear that Governor McAuliffe has once again illegally suspended the Constitution of Virginia,” House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said in a written statement. “There is no practical difference between his latest action and his first set of executive orders. . . . The governor will undoubtedly continue to falsely demagogue our motivations, but we cannot stand idly by. We have an obligation to check the excesses of executive power and hold the governor accountable to the Constitution and the rule of law.”
Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment (R-James City) said that the state constitution allows for the restoration of civil rights in specific cases but that McAuliffe’s actions went beyond that provision.
“I believe in redemption,” Norment said in a written statement. “And there is a way, within the bounds of the law, to ensure those deserving of relief have their rights restored. But no matter how noble the goal, allowing the Governor — or any government official — to usurp the Rule of Law is detrimental to our system of self-government. It cannot stand.”
McAuliffe has said felon disenfranchisement was a vestige of Jim Crow-era segregation and has accused Republicans of trying to suppress the black vote. Because of felony convictions, more than 1 in 5 African Americans in Virginia cannot vote, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group that focuses on criminal justice.
He said he intends to move Virginia, one of just a handful of states that permanently disenfranchise felons, “into the mainstream of American states where people who serve their time reenter society as full citizens again.”
“This lawsuit [is] an attempt to use the judiciary system to intimidate and disenfranchise people who are living in our communities and paying taxes,” he said in a written statement. “The people who have filed it are more concerned with the impact new voters could have on Donald Trump’s campaign than they are with the dignity of the people whom they continue to drag through the mud with their political lawsuits and ugly attacks. We will oppose this latest partisan action vigorously and overcome any and every obstacle Republicans may erect to our efforts to bring this dark chapter in our Commonwealth’s history to a close.”
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.
Republicans, incensed that the order included violent offenders, said the move was really a bid to add Democratic voters to the rolls ahead of November’s presidential election, when the governor’s close friend and political ally Hillary Clinton will be on the ballot.
Adding to the controversy was the administration’s botched implementation of the order; the governor’s office 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 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.
Last week, McAuliffe announced that he had restored voting rights to the 13,000 felons, making them free to register 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 is mailing each person a notice to that effect.
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, McAuliffe spokesman Brian Coy said last week.
In their motion, Howell and Norment contend that McAuliffe’s current approach has the same practical effect as his original executive order — suspending Virginia’s constitutional prohibition against felons voting.