Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order Friday restoring the voting rights of 206,000 ex-felons, a sweeping action the governor said was aimed largely at rectifying Virginia’s “long and sad history” of suppressing African-American voting power. The move, coming in a presidential election year, outraged Republicans who accused McAuliffe of abusing his power to help longtime ally Hillary Clinton win a battleground state by putting more likely Democratic voters on the books. The governor’s order applies to all violent and nonviolent felons who had finished their sentence and supervised release as of Friday, even those who have not applied for a restoration of rights. Previous Virginia governors have restored rights on an individual basis, but none has done it for an entire category of offenders with one pen stroke. The order stops short of creating automatic restoration of rights for all ex-offenders, because McAuliffe will have to sign similar orders on a monthly basis moving forward. Still, the order is a historic shift away from Virginia’s policy of lifetime disenfranchisement for those convicted of serious crimes.
“We benefit from a more just and accountable government when we put trust in all of our citizens to choose their leaders,” McAuliffe said Friday from the steps of the state Capitol, where a gospel choir warmed up a jubilant crowd. “It has taken Virginia many centuries, unfortunately, to learn this lesson. But today, we celebrate its truth.”
The action, which comes just days after the General Assembly wrapped up the 2016 legislative session, has the potential to expand the state’s voter rolls, currently estimated at about 5.4 million, by as much as 3.8 percent.
Virginia is one of 10 states that do not automatically restore rights upon completion of a felony sentence and one of only four states that require an application by the felon and action by the governor, according to the McAuliffe administration, which cited research showing one of every five African-Americans of voting age in Virginia has lost the right to vote.