THE VIRGINIA Supreme Court’s impressionistic reading of the state constitution, by which it conjured a provision absent from the actual text, has sent Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) back to the drawing board in his effort to restore voting rights to tens of thousands of former convicts, who are disproportionately African American. The governor’s determination is commendable, both to reverse an essentially racist legacy of the commonwealth’s history and to ensure that future elections in the state are as broadly democratic as possible.
Mr. McAuliffe is following in the footsteps of recent predecessors from both parties, who have regarded the permanent disenfranchisement of former convicts as an injustice. (Virginia is one of just a handful of states with such an onerous ban.) Those governors expanded the restoration of voting rights, taking advantage of explicit constitutional language that enables them to do so — a power that the document’s principal draftsman, University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard, said was virtually unlimited. Mr. McAuliffe is moving aggressively to further right a wrong that has deprived more than 200,000 Virginians from voting, in some cases for a half-century or longer after they paid their debt to society.
The state Supreme Court, insisting it knew the meaning of Mr. Howard’s document better than he did, ruled last month that the governor could restore voting rights only on an “individualized” basis, though the constitution includes no such requirement. The Supreme Court’s ruling rescinded the voter registrations of some 13,000 felons whose voting rights had been restored by Mr. McAuliffe’s order in April. It took the governor a month to review and restore rights to those 13,000. Republicans, fearing that former convicts are likely to vote Democratic, had scrubbed the State Police budget to eliminate three proposed employees who would have identified convicts completing their sentences who may have qualified to recover their voting rights. Now the administration, relying on unpaid interns and law students, is scrutinizing state databases to determine who else may be eligible for an “individualized” restoration order from the governor.
There are no known addresses for many of the more than 180,000 felons who remain disenfranchised. Nonetheless, restorations can, and should, proceed quickly — tens of thousands are likely in the coming months, mainly in the form of 8.5-by-11-inch envelopes containing a cover letter, restoration order and voter registration form.
For many felons, the governor’s grant will come too late for this year’s registration deadline of Oct. 17. Still, tens of thousands will be able to register in time for next year’s races for governor and the House of Delegates, barring further blocking maneuvers by Republicans.
While Virginia governors are ineligible to run for a second term, Mr. McAuliffe will be owed a debt of gratitude from thousands of newly registered voters. The governor is right to reverse the effects of a system that has left 7 percent of the state’s population disenfranchised, including 1 in 5 African Americans.