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Opinion Gillespie’s ads are poisonous to Virginia and the nation

Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam are running in this year's closely watched race for Virginia governor. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

SINCE 2001, when he was convicted of a sex offense and served a brief prison term, and early this year, when he was convicted on child-pornography charges, Virginia resident John Bowen was prohibited from voting, serving on juries or obtaining firearms for all but six weeks — and during those weeks he would have had virtually no opportunity to exercise those rights.

That didn't stop Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, from using Mr. Bowen's circumstances as fodder for an incendiary and misleading TV attack ad designed to frighten Virginians. The ad targeting his Democratic opponent in next month's election, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, is in keeping with the recent thrust of Mr. Gillespie's campaign, which, taking a page from the Trump playbook, has been more about scaring and dividing Virginians than inspiring and uniting them.

On his campaign website, Mr. Gillespie insists he favors restoring voting and other rights to convicted felons once they've paid their debt to society, and he says he would not exclude sex offenders from that policy. Apparently, however, those principles succumbed to the demagogic temptation to play on fears arising from the rights restoration policy of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and his ally Mr. Northam.

Virginia is one of a handful of states where voting and other rights are not automatically restored to convicts after they have served their sentences. The state constitution grants governors that power, and every recent Virginia governor has expanded on the restoration policies of his predecessor. Mr. McAuliffe went further, restoring rights virtually automatically for felons whose sentences were complete in real time, as well as those of tens of thousands of ex-convicts, some of whom had served their terms years or decades ago.

Mr. Bowen was in the latter category. Having been convicted and incarcerated, for a year, in 2001, his rights were suspended until December last year, when they were restored in keeping with Mr. McAuliffe's policy. As it happens, he regained his rights shortly after he was arrested and charged with possessing a massive cache of child pornography, then lost them again weeks later when he pleaded guilty in January. (In no state are rights revoked upon being arrested or criminally charged; that happens only after conviction.)

Technically, it is true that Mr. McAuliffe’s policy, which Mr. Northam backs, made it easier for Mr. Bowen to obtain firearms, serve on juries and vote. In fact, there were no elections in the 41-day window during which he regained his rights, and as a former felon he would have needed a judge’s approval to obtain a gun. Nor was there time for him to be summoned and serve on a jury.

Mr. Gillespie, determined to inflame and distract voters, could not be bothered with such details. Once known as a pragmatist and a centrist, Mr. Gillespie increasingly has been turning in his political advertising to President Trump’s brand of divisive, scaremongering politics. It’s a poisonous strategy for the nation and for Virginia.

Read more on this topic:

George F. Will: A Trumpian shadow hangs over the Virginia election

Marc A. Thiessen: Why Ed Gillespie is surging in Virginia

The Post’s View: Ed Gillespie wants Virginians to be very, very afraid

Jennifer Rubin: Gillespie breaks the hypocrisy meter