Va. Gov. McAuliffe restores Voting Rights of 13,000 felons
[subtitle]Creates System to Help Thousands More[/subtitle]’
By Jeremy Lazarus
Trice Edney News Wire
Just a month after the Virginia Supreme Court blocked his attempt to restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 felons, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is once again charging ahead on this “issue of basic justice.”
The governor stood in front the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial on Capitol Square Aug. 22 to announce that nearly 13,000 former prisoners who registered to vote as a result of his executive orders that the court later deemed unconstitutional had been mailed individual orders restoring their rights.
Gov. McAuliffe also pledged to continue restoring the rights on a case-by-case basis for felons who have served their sentences and completed parole and probation so that they, too, can cast ballots, serve on juries, run for office and become notary publics.
“Let me put this in plain English: We will proceed,” Gov. McAuliffe told an audience of 100 supporters, including legislators, administration members, voting rights advocates and people whose rights he has restored.
“It’s wonderful,” said an overjoyed David Mosby, who received his rights restoration order with the governor’s signature and a state seal in the mail, along with a voter registration application.
The mailings to the nearly 13,000 people went out last Friday, ahead of the governor’s announcement.
Mosby, 44, has rebuilt his life since leaving prison and now operates a home improvement business in Eastern Henrico County. He has been on a roller coaster regarding the restoration of his voting rights. He was among the group whose rights initially were restored four months ago when the governor, with much fanfare, issued a blanket order on April 22. Then, Mosby’s rights were revoked after the Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that the governor’s action was illegal.
With McAuliffe’s latest action, Mr. Mosby is able to register to vote again, with proof of that right in his restoration order.
“I’m looking forward to voting in November,” he said.
McAuliffe has made restoration of rights a priority since taking office in 2014. He had restored the rights of 18,000 people on a case-by-case basis — more than the seven previous governors combined — before he went even further April 22 with the blanket order restoring the rights of more than 200,000 felons.
“I personally believe in the power of second chances,” McAuliffe said as he launched his renewed effort to ensure that former prisoners get their rights restored as quickly as possible.
Those impacted “are gainfully employed,” the governor said. “They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop at our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior, second class citizens.”
Historically in Virginia, convicted felons lost their rights for good, with the governor being the only official who could restore them. Virginia is one of four states that follow such a harsh regime.
In the past 15 years, governors have been speeding up restorations, particularly for nonviolent offenders. Gov. McAuliffe’s predecessor, former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, made it virtually automatic for felons charged with nonviolent offenses to have their rights restored.
Gov. McAuliffe has gone even further by including all felons, and as a result of his administration efforts, Virginia unofficially joins the majority of states that allow felons to become voters as soon as they complete their sentences.
The governor said he would prefer the General Assembly and Virginia voters to amend the state Constitution to ensure political rights are restored once a felon’s sentence is completed. Republicans have long blocked such proposals in the General Assembly. And the governor’s efforts could end if the next governor does not continue the effort.
Two weeks ago, the governor’s plan to act quickly to restore rights in the wake of the court’s decision appeared to be bogged down. Behind the scenes, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson and other administration officials restrained the governor from acting too quickly and, instead, develop a process that would uphold his authority and avoid any further court intervention.
Under the procedure now in place, the names of people to have their rights restored are being sent to a broader array of agencies to be checked to ensure there are no red flags on their records that would require additional review.
Gov. McAuliffe and, later, Secretary Thomasson said each name is being run through the databases of such agencies as the State Police, the Department of Corrections, the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the State Compensation Board, the Department of Behavioral Health and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
While it took time to set up, the process is beginning to run smoothly, Secretary Thomasson said. She hinted that more than 13,000 people a month could have their rights restored as a result of the agencies cooperating. If that holds true, then all 206,000 people covered by the governor’s initial blanket orders could have their rights restored again within a year, along with thousands of felons who will be released from custody each month.
Republican House Speaker William J. Howell of Fredericksburg, who was among the group that sued to block the governor’s mass order, said the General Assembly “will carefully review Gov. McAuliffe’s process to determine if he followed the legal requirements.”
“From the beginning, we have done nothing more than hold the governor accountable and … (serve) as a check on the excesses of executive power.”
He and other members of the GOP sued because they were upset that the blanket orders covered violent as well as nonviolent offenders. In some cases, the governor acknowledged, mistakes were made, such as the restoration of rights to 132 still imprisoned sex offenders.
Gov. McAuliffe is confident the new process will pass muster. He is not backing off restoring the rights of violent and nonviolent offenders without delay.
“I know there are those who believe the governor should make certain individuals wait longer because of the severity of their crime,” he said. “That principle is found nowhere in our constitution.”
He said violent offenders serve longer sentences and “therefore, they must wait longer to have their rights restored.”
McAuliffe also made it clear that he is still offended by the court’s ruling and dismayed at the Republican critics who blocked him from restoring rights en masse.
“The Virginia Constitution is clear,” he said. “I have the authority to restore civil rights without limitation. But the court dismissed the clear text of the Constitution by simply saying that rights had never been restored in this manner here in Virginia. In other words, we were messing around with the way things have always been done in the Old Dominion.
“But if Virginia did things the way they had always been done,” he continued, “our children would still attend segregated schools, our buses would have seats assigned by race, interracial marriage would be illegal, same-sex partners would not be allowed to marry and Virginians would be forced to pay a tax at the polls on Election Day.”
McAuliffe also dismissed mostly GOP critics who claimed that he tried restoring rights to add people to the voting rolls who would vote for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and other Democrats.
He said that he paid no attention to the race, color or partisan leanings of those whose rights were being restored, but instead found it the moral thing to do.
He said that candidates and political parties should stop complaining about his actions and instead go out “and earn their votes.”
In his view, the procedure he has announced should mark “the end of partisan battles that have been waged over this issue so that every Virginia leader can play a role in welcoming these individuals back to society and in building a commonwealth of greater justice, equality and opportunity for every family.”