Republican lawmakers in Virginia filed a lawsuit Monday to block the governor from restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 residents with felony convictions. The case now before the Virginia Supreme Court argues that the Gov. Terry McAuliffe exceeded his constitutional power by signing an executive order restoring the full civil rights of all residents who have already served their felony sentences and completed supervised parole or probation. Until April, Virginia had been one of just four U.S. states that permanently disenfranchised most people with felony convictions.
“The Governor is authorized to restore the voting rights of any convicted felon through an individualized grant of clemency, but he may not issue a blanket restoration of voting rights,” the lawsuit states.
Since the Governor’s executive order in April, a small army of voting rights advocates have fanned out across the Commonwealth to register as many of these 200,000 people as possible before this November, when they could have tip the balance in the presidential election in the crucial swing state. Nearly 4,000 formerly disenfranchised ex-offenders have already registered.
“I’ve had grown men cry and hug me. I’ve seen women do the happy dance and shout,” said Karen Fountain with New Virginia Majority, the group taking the lead on the registration campaign. “You can see in that moment that they feel they are worth something. They go from no self esteem to self esteem. It’s just great to see.”
Fountain has been going out six days a week, clipboard in hand, combing the lower-income neighborhoods of Richmond, Virginia looking for people who have just regained the right to vote. One of the dozens of people she registered was Virginia native Randy Tyler, who lost his voting rights in 1995 due to a grand larceny conviction.
“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.”
If Republicans win this lawsuit, they will not only block advocates like Fountain from registering more former felons to vote, but they’ll strip away the registration from those like Tyler who have already filed their paperwork. Yet many legal experts, including one of the key authors of the state’s constitution, say the governor is well within his legal powers in granting the universal restoration of rights.
“Such decisions lies within his discretion,” wrote constitutional scholar A.E. Dick Howard. “He clearly has authority, under the Constitution, to remove disabilities from classes of people, as well as to act in individual cases.”
Both Tyler and Fountain told ThinkProgress that they see the current battle as a continuation of Virginia’s centuries-long efforts to prevent people of color from gaining political power. In fact, the authors of the state’s original felon disenfranchisement law openly bragged that their goal was to “disenfranchise every negro that I could disenfranchise.”
African Americans make up 46 percent of the ex-offenders who could regain their rights from the governor’s executive order, even though they make up less than 20 percent of the state’s population. Nearly 80 percent, like Tyler, committed non-violent felony crimes.