Republican leaders of Virginia’s legislature have asked the state’s highest court to block Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who have served out their sentences — the latest in a series of GOP measures meant to dilute and minimize the electoral clout of African Americans in the commonwealth. The Republican lawsuit rests heavily on the idea that Virginia’s governor is invested with the authority to restore ex-convicts’ voting rights only if the restoration is “individualized” — a word that appears nowhere in the state’s constitution. In fact, the constitution explicitly empowers the governor “to remove political disabilities” arising from “conviction for offenses” and strips voting rights from a felon “unless his civil rights have been restored by the governor.”
It is mainly on that slender grammatical reed — the constitution’s references to a “person” convicted of a felony and the restoration of “his” voting rights by the governor — that Republicans rely in insisting that Mr. McAuliffe (D) has overstepped. Yet they made no such objection when Mr. McAuliffe’s Republican predecessor, former governor Robert F. McDonnell, broke with precedent three years ago by restoring voting rights for most nonviolent felons on a virtually automatic basis.
The GOP lawsuit asks the court to strip voting rights from several thousand felons whose franchise has been restored already by the governor’s order and to block any others who might regain the vote prospectively. It argues, accurately, that Mr. McAuliffe’s action is unprecedented because for “nearly a quarter of a millennium,” no previous governor used the power of clemency so broadly.