In a landmark executive order signed last week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored the voting rights of more than 200,000 former felons, including violent offenders. Until now, former inmates needed to apply before they could re-gain the right to vote. Now, ex-convicts who have completed their parole requirements are automatically able to register to vote without a special petition. The ruling carries special weight among black communities—25 percent of African Americans living in Virginia who were barred from voting based on their past convictions will now get to vote. “Wow, this is incredible, I finally feel like a full human being.” Although McAuliffe has long been advocating for broader voting rights, the decision still came as a surprise to many. In fact, the New Virginia Majority, a community organization that focuses on civic engagement, have been working since 2007 to restore voting rights for ex-felons.
According to co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority, Tram Nguyen: “We saw senior citizens who had never registered to vote before cry because they were finally able to. We had a man say, ‘Wow, this is incredible, I finally feel like a full human being.’”
In 2012, Nguyen and her team partnered with the Advancement Project, an organization that uses legal analysis to promote social justice. During their collaboration, they discovered that governors have full authority to reinstate voting rights. Their findings quickly led then-Governor Bob McDonnell to remove the two-year waiting period for voting rights restoration for ex-felons and eliminating the application process for those formerly convicted of non-violent felonies. When McAuliffe was sworn in, he maintained McDonnell’s order, and, in his first two and a half years, restored voting rights for over 18,000 ex-felons.