Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed an executive order Friday restoring the voting rights of at least 200,000 residents with a felony criminal record ahead of the presidential election in November. Speaking from the marble steps of the state capitol, he said the move was necessary for the state to move away from its slaveholder past. Starting today, those formerly disenfranchised residents can vote, run for office, and serve on a jury.
“I have long struggled with the question of whether Virginia can fully address Lincoln’s call for a government by the people, of the people, and for the people, when we cut out so many people from full citizenship,” he said. “This is the essence of democracy. Any effort to erode it dilutes it for all of us. So I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubled history and restore the rights of these men and women.”
After McAuliffe signed the order to raucous applause, a choir rose and belted out an amended version of the famous spiritual, signing, “We have overcome on this day.”
Virginia is one of a small handful of states that permanently disenfranchise residents with a felony record. In 38 other states and D.C., most ex-felons automatically regain the right to vote when they complete their sentence.
But reforms implemented by McAuliffe over the past two years have loosened those restrictions and made it possible for thousands of Virginians with non-violent drug convictions to have their rights automatically restored. He also abolished the practice of withholding civil rights from those who can’t afford to pay their court fees — which affected Virginians have called a modern-day poll tax.
The new policy is expected to affect a quarter-million citizens in Virginia, the vast majority of them people of color. Local faith leaders speaking at the order’s signing emphasized that felon disenfranchisement laws like Virginia’s were created with the explicit intent of preventing African Americans from gaining political power. In fact, one state senator who pushed for the policy more than 100 years ago noted that it would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor” and ensure the “complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”
At Friday’s signing, Gov. McAuliffe encouraged the newly eligible voters to do their part and register to vote now that the hurdles have been cleared.
He also emphasized that there is “no legal or moral basis” for continuing to bar “folks who have served their time” from voting, saying the new policy will send an important message both to the formerly disenfranchised and to the country.
“Virginia will no longer build walls and barriers to the ballot box. We will take them down,” he said.