Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, has a problem similar to one faced by Barack Obama: a Republican-controlled legislature delights in killing his proposals, especially those popular with Democrats. So Mr McAuliffe is doing as Mr Obama has done: implementing some of them by executive fiat. Mr McAuliffe’s latest is a doozy: a order made on April 22nd that restores the voting and civil rights of an estimated 206,000 non-violent and violent felons who have completed their penalties. Until Mr McAuliffe’s order, which came as a surprise, he had been considering the reinstatement of such rights as all Virginia governors have since the mid-1800s: on a case-by-case basis, making for an achingly slow and sometimes erratic process. Republicans, who have generally opposed making it easier to re-enfranchise felons stripped of their voting rights upon conviction, were quick to complain that by flooding the polls with new voters Mr McAuliffe was simply trying to tip this presidential battleground state to his good friend, Hillary Clinton. But while there is little doubt that Mr McAuliffe’s executive order has become a talking point for both political parties, it is not clear what impact it will have on registration and voting.
Democrats say the governor is correcting an ancient wrong, restoring full privileges of citizenship to a slice of Virginia’s population disproportionately hit by restrictive voting laws and harsh criminal penalties: African-Americans. Beyond their criticism that Mr McAuliffe is giving blatant assistance to Mrs Clinton, Republican legislators complain that Mr McAuliffe’s order will open parts of public life to the wrong people; that, for example, rapists, paedophiles and murderers will be able to sit on criminal juries. But will they vote?
Scholars at Stanford University law school and the University of Pennsylvania studied North Carolina—a neighboring state demographically similar to Virginia—and concluded that few former felons register and fewer vote. Pegged to the 2008 presidential election in which Mr Obama narrowly carried North Carolina, the study showed that 33 percent of felons released there between 2004 and 2008 registered to vote and only 21 percent reported to the polls.
Applying the North Carolina findings to Virginia, campaign professionals and political analysts project that Mr McAuliffe’s order could net roughly 70,000 new voters, of whom many would be African-American and other minorities presumed to favour Democrats. But if only about one-fifth of the original pool bothered to vote, then perhaps 40,000 might participate, with Democrats capturing fewer than 30,000.