Virginia Governor Restores 13,000 Felons' Voting Rights, This Time One by One

by | August 23, 2016

By Travis Fain

Individual orders have gone out re-restoring voting rights for some 13,000 former felons in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Monday.

Included with each mailing: A voter registration form.

This first round of new restorations covered most of the people who, following McAuliffe's mass restoration order in April, registered to vote in Virginia. A few of those cases remained under review as of Monday, the administration said.

The state Supreme Court nullified McAuliffe's April order a month ago, agreeing with GOP legislative leaders who had sued the governor over an unconstitutional exercise of his restoration powers.

Only individual orders are valid, the court said.

With individual orders now done for nearly all the people who registered to vote, McAuliffe said his administration will turn its attention now to as many as 200,000 more people he initially hoped to cover via mass orders. They will be prioritized by earliest date of release, and those who request restoration will jump to the front of the line, McAuliffe said.

The administration's review process will closely resemble, officials said, the one used prior to April's mass restoration. It includes checks with eight state agencies to be sure felons completed their sentences and aren't under state supervision, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said.

He hasn't actually sign these new orders, though, they are printed with his signature already in place.

Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment, R-James City, said in a statement following the governor's announcement Monday that he was "pleased Gov. McAuliffe has complied with the decision of the Supreme Court of Virginia."

Norment and Speaker of the House William Howell filed the lawsuit that forced McAuliffe to re-work his process, and their suit also removed the 13,000 or so felons who had registered in the interim from the state's voting rolls. Those people must re-apply to vote in any coming elections.

"Had the Governor followed the Constitution of Virginia on April 22 when he initially attempted this, those affected by today's announcement might not have endured the roller-coaster of bureaucratic incompetence his executive overreach exposed," Norment said in his statement.

Howell, R-Stafford, said in his own statement Monday that the General Assembly "will carefully review Governor McAuliffe's process to determine if he followed the legal requirements."

That process wasn't submitted to the court, or to GOP leaders, for input before it was implemented, nor did the Supreme Court's decision require this. The process used now is at least as robust as the one the McAuliffe administration used to restore rights, individually, to some 18,000 people before moving to the mass order system, said Thomasson, whose office oversees restorations.

That process did not spark a lawsuit, or high-profile complaints, from the General Assembly's Republican majority.

It's not clear how many individual orders the administration can process before the Oct. 17 deadline to register to vote in November's elections, but the administration has promised to release the names of people whose rights are restored every month, on the 15th.

The governor and his team resisted previous calls for this sort of transparency, but critics quickly found mistaken restorations in a database the administration put online so people could see whether their rights had been restored. That database required a full name and the last four digits of a social security number to check, and a pair of commonwealth's attorneys inputted names from their jurisdictions.

"The numerous mistakes Gov. McAuliffe made attempting to restore rights en masse ... demonstrates the wisdom of a case-by-case process," Howell said in his statement.

Howell said he believes "some deserving citizens" have had their rights restored now, as well as "some odious criminals." He called on McAuliffe to say "specifically why he is restoring rights to habitual offenders, those who have not yet paid back their victims, and the Commonwealth's worst sex offenders."

McAuliffe's answer on this point has been simple: Because they've served their time. The governor re-iterated Monday that he has no intention of treating people differently in this process based on the crimes they committed. That is what the criminal justice system is for, he said.

The governor also decried the state's automatic disenfranchisement for felons as a relic of a racist past. He called, much as his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell did in his farewell address, for the General Assembly to amend the state constitution and make restorations truly automatic, instead of subject to a governor's whims.

Voting rights, as well as the right to serve on a jury, run for public office and become a notary public, are restored by the governor under the state constitution. Gun rights require an additional step and a judge's consent.

(c)2016 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)