OVERCOMING BITTER opposition from Republican lawmakers, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia has largely rectified an enormous, archaic injustice: the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of former felons — about half of them African Americans — whose debt to society has been paid, in many cases decades ago.
After prevailing in state courts, Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, was able to assert his power under the state constitution and has so far restored the vote to more than 156,000 ex-convicts. By the time his four-year term in office ends in January, he is on pace to have restored rights (including the right to serve on juries) to at least another 5,000 former felons.
It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the governor’s action, which he himself called his “proudest achievement” in office. His recent predecessors, all recognizing the injustice of indefinite suspension of civil rights for people who had completed their sentences, had each taken steps to expand rights restoration — particularly the man who immediately preceded him, former governor Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican former prosecutor.
Yet even Mr. McDonnell, who made the process virtually automatic for those who had committed nonviolent felonies, restored voting rights to only 8,000 or so one-time prisoners. Mr. McAuliffe has now done more in this field than all his predecessors combined.
By Virginia’s standards, his actions have been radical, but that’s only because the state is such an outlier — one of just four in the nation whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens, barring intercession by the governor.
In some of the other states with the most prejudicial policies, there is also progress. In Florida, a needlessly cumbersome process established by Republican Gov. Rick Scott will be streamlined if voters approve a ballot initiative next year to amend the state’s constitution to automatically restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences. In Alabama, a newly enacted law ends decades of confusion and opens the door for more former felons to vote — more than a quarter-million are now disenfranchised in the state — by clarifying which offenses are cause for disenfranchisement and which are not.
In Virginia, Mr. McAuliffe’s moves have already paid dividends for democracy: About 26,000 of those who regained voting rights at his initiative voted in last November’s elections.
More can be done. State officials have names, but no addresses, for at least 30,000 to 40,000 more former felons, whom they have been unable to reach to screen for possible rights restoration. There are estimates that tens of thousands of others have not been identified in any state database. About half of those who might still be eligible to regain their rights are black in a state where African Americans make up a fifth of the overall population, meaning ongoing disenfranchisement remains racially skewed.
Still, Mr. McAuliffe has cleared a good chunk of the backlog of people whose debt to society is paid. Republicans in Richmond remain apoplectic that violent felons’ rights have been restored at the same pace as those of nonviolent ones — as if the longer sentences they already served somehow don’t count. A future governor might slow the pace of ongoing restorations or even shift criteria. But those already re-enfranchised are secure in their restored rights, and Mr. McAuliffe’s legacy is assured.