Overcoming bitter opposition from Republican lawmakers, Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia has largely rectified an enormous, archaic injustice: the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of former felons — about half of them African Americans — whose debt to society has been paid, in many cases decades ago. After prevailing in state courts, Mr. McAuliffe, a Democrat, was able to assert his power under the state constitution and has so far restored the vote to more than 156,000 ex-convicts. By the time his four-year term in office ends in January, he is on pace to have restored rights (including the right to serve on juries) to at least another 5,000 former felons. It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of the governor’s action, which he himself called his “proudest achievement” in office. His recent predecessors, all recognizing the injustice of indefinite suspension of civil rights for people who had completed their sentences, had each taken steps to expand rights restoration — particularly the man who immediately preceded him, former governor Robert F. McDonnell, a Republican former prosecutor.
Yet even Mr. McDonnell, who made the process virtually automatic for those who had committed nonviolent felonies, restored voting rights to only 8,000 or so one-time prisoners. Mr. McAuliffe has now done more in this field than all his predecessors combined.
By Virginia’s standards, his actions have been radical, but that’s only because the state is such an outlier — one of just four in the nation whose constitution permanently disenfranchises citizens, barring intercession by the governor.