With just over two months until the election, Virginia Republicans are back in court demanding that the governor be held in contempt for trying to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 citizens.
After Virginia’s highest court ruled last month that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) overstepped his powers when he restored voting rights to the states former felons, the governor vowed to help them regain the right to vote anyway.
On Wednesday, state Republicans leaders claimed in a new court filing that his promise to sign 206,000 individual clemency grants also violates the law. The motion, filed by Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell (R) and other GOP leaders, asks the court to rule that McAuliffe should be held in contempt for violating its July order.
Under Virginia law, the governor has the power to restore voting rights through clemency grants to individual voters. Even though there is no limit on the number of grants he can sign, the Republicans’ filing alleges that McAuliffe’s plan to sign hundreds of thousands of clemency documents is illegal.
Under Virginia’s constitution, former felons lose their voting rights for life unless the governor individually restores them. But in April, McAuliffe issued three executive orders which would allow them to restore their civil rights upon the completion of their sentences.
McAuliffe’s orders would have brought a significant number of new voters into the democratic process — currently, one in five black Virginians are blocked from participating because of their convictions. His order also could have had a significant impact on the November election in the crucial swing state, a fact that led many state Republicans to claim that the governor acted for his own party’s political gain.
Republicans filed suit, and in July, the Virginia Supreme Court sided with the GOP, finding that McAuliffe couldn’t grant blanket clemency to all former felons. Immediately, the governor said would use his power to sign individual clemency grants for each of the 206,000 disenfranchised felons to be able to vote.
In Wednesday’s filing, however, Howell and other state Republicans claimed the governor’s second attempt to restore rights is also unlawful because he is not considering the individual circumstances of each former felon.
“After a thorough legal review, it is clear that Governor McAuliffe has once again illegally suspended the Constitution of Virginia,” Howell said in a statement. “There is no practical difference between his latest action and his first set of executive orders.”
Susan Swecker, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party of Virginia, said that Republicans “should be ashamed of themselves” for trying to revoke Virginians’ voting rights again.
“Republicans remain hell-bent on their singular mission to preserve archaic barriers to the polls, particularly for minority voters,” she said.
Virginia is one of four states that permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions. Studies show that giving formerly incarcerated people voting rights helps them reintegrate into society, and McAuliffe has called Virginia’s suspension laws the last vestige of the Jim Crow era.