THE RACISTS who rewrote Virginia’s constitution in 1902 made no bones about their objectives. Poll taxes, literacy tests and the disenfranchisement of felons were all granted constitutional cover, the better, explained State Sen. Carter Glass (D), a key draftsman, “to eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State” and ensure “the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) did his best Friday to scrap the last vestige of that project: the ban on voting by ex-felons. Mr. McAuliffe, who as a candidate promised to expand on similar efforts by his predecessors, ordered that voting rights be automatically restored to more than 200,000 former inmates who have completed their sentences, regardless of their offense.
It’s about time. For years, Virginia has been one of a dirty dozen states that has barred automatic restoration of voting and other civil rights to ex-convicts. It is one of just four such states — the others are Florida, Iowa and Kentucky — that erected the most onerous barriers by subjecting every felon, violent or not, to a lifetime revocation barring action by the governor.
Make no mistake: the disenfranchisement of felons is as racially skewed today as it was in Virginia’s racist past. While African Americans comprise just a fifth of Virginia’s population, more than half the inmates in state prisons are black. Owing to the disenfranchisement of felons, an estimated 1 in 5 black Virginians of voting age cannot vote, notwithstanding past moves by Mr. McAuliffe and his Republican predecessor, Robert F. McDonnell, to restore voting rights to nonviolent former felons.
No doubt, the action by Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat and longtime friend and fundraiser for Bill and Hillary Clinton, has a political dimension. By enlarging Virginia’s potential electorate to include tens of thousands more voters, many of them black, Mr. McAuliffe is granting Democrats a crucial edge in a swing state ahead of November’s presidential election.
At the same time, Mr. McAuliffe’s move rests on rock-solid principle: that ex-convicts “who have served their time and reentered society should do so as full citizens.” To argue, as many Republicans do, that voting rights should be withheld from former felons — in many cases indefinitely — is to insist that the state continue to exact punishment and retribution. That is odds with practice in some 38 states, where voting and other civil rights are restored automatically once prison, parole and probation time have been completed.
Republicans expressed predictable outrage at Mr. McAuliffe’s order, but they will be hard-pressed to challenge it. The state constitutional language barring a felon from voting “unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor” seems to grant Mr. McAuliffe precisely the power he has exercised. No less an authority than University of Virginia legal scholar A.E. Dick Howard, the primary draftsman of the commonwealth’s revised, 1971 constitution, said Mr. McAuliffe’s order was legally sound.
Past governors have used their power to restore voting rights on an individual basis, but nothing in the state constitution disqualifies restoration to an entire class. And it was Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, who essentially scrapped the individual standard by automatically restoring the vote to nonviolent felons when they complete their sentences. As for Mr. McAuliffe’s order, which applies only to existing ex-convicts, it can be renewed for future such groups — or canceled — by future governors.
Republicans are on shaky ground in wanting to retain what Mr. Howard called “the last prop of white supremacy,” and in accusing Mr. McAuliffe of political opportunism. It was GOP lawmakers who restricted voting rights in Virginia and elsewhere by tightening voter ID requirements on the false pretext of fighting electoral fraud (which barely exists). Those moves are transparently aimed at disqualifying minority voters.
Between the GOP’s attempts to narrow the pool of voters and Mr. McAuliffe’s move to broaden it, it’s the governor who has the moral and democratic high ground.