Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) is taking action to restore the voting rights of thousands of ex-offenders in the state after a court decision Friday put them in jeopardy. He’s getting around the Virginia Supreme Court’s ruling against him by signing 200,000 individual clemency grants to the state’s ex-offenders to ensure their right to vote in November.
In a 4 to 3 decision late Friday, the Supreme Court of Virginia stripped away the voting rights from 200,000 ex-offenders who had recently regained full civil rights through one of McAuliffe’s executive orders, effectively disenfranchising one in five of the state’s African American voters.
The court said the governor lacks the authority under the state constitution to issue a blanket rights restoration to everyone in the state with a felony record who has already served their full sentence. A study earlier this year found that the vast majority of those impacted — 80 percent — committed non-violent crimes. Most have been out of prison for more than a decade, and African Americans are disproportionately represented. Forty-six percent of the ex-offenders are black, though blacks make up less than 20 percent of the state’s population.
The non-partisan group that has for months been leading the charge on registering ex-offenders to vote, New Virginia Majority, released a statement saying the ruling “reaffirms the Commonwealth’s Jim Crow legacy,” noting that the vast majority of states restore voting rights upon release from prison.
“Excluding Virginians from the ballot, even after they’ve paid their debts to society, is a cruel, inhumane reminder of past mistakes,” said Tram Nguyen, the group’s executive director. “Importantly, today’s ruling validates entrenched interests in the Virginia General Assembly bent on silencing a large swath of Black Virginians in order to maximize their political power.”
But just hours after the decision, McAuliffe vowed to push back by signing clemency grants for the state’s ex-offenders one by one.
“The struggle for civil rights has always been a long and difficult one, but the fight goes on,” he wrote. “I remain committed to moving past our Commonwealth’s history of injustice to embrace an honest process for restoring the rights of our citizens, and I believe history and the vast majority of Virginians are on our side.”
With the November election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump just few months away, Republicans have accused McAuliffe of pushing the voting rights restoration to help Clinton carry the swing state in the fall.
Virginia, a long-time conservative stronghold, was key to President Obama’s 2008 and 2012 victories, and is considered a toss-up for 2016. Theoretically, if all 206,000 ex-offenders register to vote before the October deadline, they could decide who sits in the White House next year. The governor’s office says just 13,000 have registered so far, and the new need for individual clemency orders will likely slow down the registration process.
This means legal uncertainty for people like Virginia native Randy Tyler, who lost his voting rights in 1995 due to a grand larceny conviction, and just regained them through the governor’s executive order this year.
“Before, I felt like I was left out. I felt like even though I live in America, I wasn’t a part of it,” he told ThinkProgress. “But now, I have the privilege of saying who I want to elect for the presidency. I might be the one vote that makes a difference. I feel like a citizen of the United States again.”