Louise Benjamin, 48, looked forward to casting her first ever ballot in Virginia this November, after Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored her voting rights and those of more than 200,000 other convicted felons who had also completed their sentences. She saw voting as a chance for redemption after serving time for assault charges. Then, last week, the state Supreme Court decided she couldn’t vote after all. “I was so hurt. I couldn’t even believe it,” said Benjamin, after the state’s highest court ruled that McAuliffe had overstepped his authority by restoring voting rights en masse instead of on a case by case basis. “Why they don’t want us to vote?” Across the state, more than 13,000 ex-offenders who had registered to vote after McAuliffe signed his wholesale clemency order in April have been thrust into a kind of voting limbo. “They have felt like they just had their rights restored and before they could even savor that for long, here comes the court just swooping in and taking it all away again,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive of New Virginia Majority which has been registering ex-offenders including Benjamin. “A lot of them are hearing the message that they don’t belong, they don’t deserve a voice.” The court directed the state elections commissioner, Edgardo Cortés, to cancel the registrations by Aug. 25 of the 13,000 felons and add their names to a list of prohibited voters.
McAuliffe has vowed to circumvent the court ruling by issuing individual restoration orders with an autopen. Once signed, the order will be sent to the eligible felon, along with a new voter registration form, administration officials said.
Meanwhile, state Republicans, who challenged McAuliffe’s April order and accused him of trying to swell the ranks of Democratic voters, say they’re closely monitoring his actions and may sue again.
Organizers acknowledge the confusion over this legal back-and-forth is making it harder to register felons, some of whom can be difficult to reach if they don’t have permanent homes. For many ex-convicts trying to re-enter society, voter registration paperwork is not a top priority, activists say.