In a major executive order, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia on Friday restored voting rights to more than 200,000 people who have completed their sentences for felony convictions. Virginia was one of four states, along with Iowa, Kentucky and Florida, that placed a lifetime bar on voting for anyone convicted of a felony. All other states except Maine and Vermont impose lesser restrictions on voting by people with felony convictions. To people who have served their time and finished parole, Mr. McAuliffe said in a statement: “I want you back in society. I want you feeling good about yourself. I want you voting, getting a job, paying taxes.” It is the largest restoration of voting rights by a governor, ever. Felon disenfranchisement laws, which currently block nearly six million Americans from voting, were enacted during the Reconstruction era in a racist effort to make it harder for newly freed African-Americans to vote — a reality Mr. McAuliffe acknowledged on Friday. “There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans — we should remedy it,” he said. In Virginia, one in five blacks have until now been unable to vote because of a felony conviction.
Mr. McAuliffe’s historic act, which he took in the face of opposition by the state’s Republican-led General Assembly, is all the more notable against the backdrop of persistent attempts by conservative lawmakers and officials around the country to make voting harder or impossible for minority voters, who tend to vote Democratic. (A similar executive order issued last year by Steven Beshear, the Democratic governor of Kentucky, was quickly reversed by his successor, Matt Bevin, a Republican.)
Until 2013, it was much easier to block discriminatory voting laws. Under the Voting Rights Act, all or parts of 16 states, most in the South, with a history of passing such laws were required to get permission from the Justice Department before making any voting changes. But in the case of Shelby County v. Holder, five Supreme Court justices disabled that requirement, known as preclearance.