The Last Word: McAuliffe Restores Voting Rights to 206k Felons

It has been a longstanding commentary – at least as long as I have thought about criminal justice – that after you serve the time, you have paid your “debt to society.” However, in Virginia, particularly for felonies, there are a few more hoops that have to be demonstrated before one has other privileges, such as the right to vote and the right to bear arms, restored after being granted freedom from prison and parole.

During Governor Bob McDonnell’s administration, nearly eight thousand felons were individually screened and provided back their voting rights. In the previous six administrations, which includes Republican and Democratic governors, voting rights restored barely eclipsed ten thousand.

In other words, it has been a slow, deliberative, and bipartisan process as to whether an individual should have their voting rights restored after committing what, at least I think, is still considered the most egregious crimes against the state.

These rights were only restored on a case-by-case basis.

Today, however, Governor Terry McAuliffe took the unprecedented step of unilaterally granting a complete reprieve to 206,000 Virginians under the auspices of Article V, Section 12 of the Virginia Constitution.

According to the governor, he,

“restored the voting and civil rights of more than 200,000 Virginians who were convicted of felonies, served their time and completed any supervised release, parole or probation requirements. Each of those Virginians will immediately regain the right to register to vote, to run for office, to serve on a jury and to serve as a notary public.

“Throughout my administration my team and I have operated on a simple principle: Virginians who have served their time and reentered society should do so as full citizens of our Commonwealth and country,” said Governor McAuliffe. “Too often in both our distant and recent history, politicians have used their authority to restrict peoples’ ability to participate in our democracy. Today we are reversing that disturbing trend and restoring the rights of more than 200,000 of our fellow Virginians who work, raise families and pay taxes in every corner of our Commonwealth.”

“The Governor implemented his action by signing an order restoring the rights of every Virginia felon who completed his or her sentence and all other requirements as of April 22nd, 2016.”

Now, of course, I will give McAuliffe some credit. He is merely reversing a law and a policy that was originally enacted by the Democrats as part of their Jim Crow era disenfranchisement of blacks. At least it’s a start. But unilaterally? On a subject that the legislature weighed in on AGAINST a member of their own party as recently as 2013?

As a refresher, McDonnell proposed in 2013 a series of bills that were meant to restore the voting rights of non-violent felons automatically.

In his state of the commonwealth address, McDonnell said:

“While we have significantly improved and fast-tracked the restoration of civil rights process, it’s still an executive process. As a nation that believes in redemption and second chances, we must provide a clear path for willing individuals to be productive members of society once they have served their sentences and paid their fines and restitution. It is time for Virginia to join most of the other states and make the restoration of civil rights an automatic process for non-violent offenders.

“This session, Delegates Greg Habeeb and Peter Farrell have introduced bills to address this issue, and I urge you to support legislation for the automatic restoration of rights for non-violent felons.”

Well, it didn’t happen. The bills died in committee. But that’s the process.

Even if you agree with the policy, we do not live in a monarchy. The legislature must make the laws of the people.

Rightfully so, both Speaker of the House William Howell and Senate GOP Caucus Chairman Ryan McDougle took exception to the executive overreach of the administration today.

“As a former prosecutor, I am disgusted by Governor McAuliffe’s overtly political actions at the expense of the victims and the families of victims of violent crimes,” said McDougle. “Child molesters, rapists, and murderers will now be seated on juries beside model citizens. And, all because Terry McAuliffe wants to ensure that convicted pedophiles, rapists, and domestic abusers can vote for Hillary Clinton and Levar Stoney.”

That is likely the politics behind this, but Speaker Howell also elaborates on the sheer dismissal of the rules that govern our constitutional republic:

“There are significant constitutional and legal questions regarding the Governor’s authority to take such drastic action. No Governor in the history of Virginia has accepted such a sweeping view of executive power. A.E. Dick Howard notes in his commentaries that Governors have considered the “restoration of civil disabilities on an individual basis.” The Supreme Court has acknowledged the Governor’s authority on the restoration rights, but only in the context of requests made by individuals. The Court does not appear to have ever contemplated the view taken by the Governor. Most recently, in 2010, counsel to Governor Tim Kaine said ‘a blanket order restoring the voting rights of everyone would be a rewrite of the law rather than a contemplated use of the executive clemency powers.’ …. “We will immediately begin a detailed review of the Governor’s policy to determine what options are available to the General Assembly.”

McAuliffe vowed, on a monthly basis, continue to restore voting rights unilaterally until the General Assembly can stop him, if they can.

Update: I was contacted by a state delegate who told me that often a felon’s debt – in the literal sense – is not fully repaid and that they owe “huge fines and court costs.”

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