A Battle to Restore Voting Rights To Those With Felony Convictions in Virginia

November 17th, 2016

By Brendan Kreckel 

Earlier this year, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order to restore voting rights to more individuals convicted of felonies in his state. Republican lawmakers vehemently opposed the order, bringing the matter to the Virginia Supreme Court. The court invalidated the order and required that newly registered citizens have their rights revoked once again.

A 2013 executive order by former Governor Bob McDonnell restored voting rights to individuals convicted non-violent felonies who fit specific criteria. McAuliffe first issued an executive order in April of 2016 that would have broadened that criteria to restore voting rights to felony offenders who had completed the terms of their incarceration, including those on supervised release and violent offenders. Governor McAuliffe issued two similar orders in May and June.  These three orders would have restored voting rights to an estimated 200,000 individuals with felony convictions.

On July 22, the Virginia Supreme Court determined that the Governor’s executive orders violated the Virginia Constitution.  Specifically, the court held that the restoration of voting rights for individuals convicted of

Photo Credit to Liz West via Creative Commons: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Photo Credit to Liz West via Creative Commons.

felonies can’t be done in a broad sweeping executive order, but rather, that each decision must be made on a case by case basis.

Virginia is one of four states where the state constitution permanently disenfranchises felons, along with Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida. Virginia and Florida provide a supplementary process where their respective governors may restore a felon’s right to vote through a pardon.

Governor McAuliffe considers this provision of the Virginia Constitution a remnant of Jim Crow era segregation. Indeed, felony conviction-based disenfranchisement affects African Americans much more significantly than any other demographic.

According to the Sentencing Project one in every 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felon disenfranchisement, compared to 1 in 56 non-black voters nationwide.  In Virginia specifically, more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.

Republicans, on the other hand, feel that this was a blatant attempt by the Governor, a Democrat and ally to Hillary Clinton, to influence the results of the presidential election.  Republican law makers objected to the fact that the Governor’s orders reinstated the rights of violent offenders who had not paid restitution to their victims.

Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky, and Florida felons are barred from voting by their state constitutions.  These are the strictest felony voting laws in the country.  By contrast, in Maine and Vermont, felons never lose the right to vote; even those currently serving their sentence.

Governor McAuliffe responded to the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling on August 22, 2016 by instituting a Restoration of Rights Policy.  The policy entails issuing individual pardons to people convicted of felonies in the state who are are ineligible for restoration of their voting right under 2013 executive order. The Governor’s office will begin by restoring the rights of those who have been out of the criminal justice system the longest.

As of August 15, 13,000 individuals had been processed and their pardons issued.  The Governor is encouraging anyone who believes they may be eligible to contact the Secretary of the Commonwealth to expedite the restoration of their civil rights.

Following the announcement of the Restoration Rights Policy, republican law makers brought another suit against the Governor, this time claiming that the Governor should be held in contempt of court. The Virginia Supreme Court dismissed this action. Republican opponents to Governor McAuliffe’s campaign to restore felons voting rights say they will no longer continue to pursue legal action and will instead turn to legislative measures.