In Swing-State Virginia, Battle Over Felons Voting Goes to Court

by | July 20, 2016

By Travis Fain

Virginia's legislative and executive branches took their fight over felon voting before the state's highest court Tuesday in a case that could redefine a governor's power to restore civil rights and sway the 2016 presidential race.

Republican legislators called on the Virginia Supreme Court to keep more than 200,000 Virginia felons from registering to vote, arguing that Gov. Terry McAuliffe's sweeping executive order restoring some of their civil rights went so far that it threatens to brush away a section of the state constitution.

McAuliffe's attorney pointed to the plain language of the constitution, which uses singular pronouns but doesn't specifically say Virginia governors can only restore rights on a case-by-case basis, as 71 previous governors have done when it comes to violent felons.

"There's no hook in that language where you can hang their arguments," Solicitor General Stuart Raphael argues before the state's seven Supreme Court justices.

The stakes are high. Though only 11,662 people affected by McAuliffe's order had registered to vote as of Monday, Virginia's swing state status in a crucial general election leaves both sides fighting for every vote. Republicans have said McAuliffe, the long-time friend of presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, timed his restoration to help win her votes.

From a floor fight with anti-Trump delegates to a widely criticized speech from would-be First Lady, Melania Trump, here's what happened during the first day of the Republican National Convention.

From a floor fight with anti-Trump delegates to a widely criticized speech from would-be First Lady, Melania Trump, here's what happened during the first day of the Republican National Convention.

Multiple state delegations stormed off the Republican National Convention floor Monday. Trump critics attempted to force a roll call vote on the convention rules package. This would enable them to vote for the candidate of their choice rather than the winner of the state primaries. Under existing Republican National Committee rules, the convention's 2,472 delegates must cast their first-round votes according to their state primary and caucus results. Convention officials dismissed the petition and passed the rules package by voice tally. The country hasn't seen a floor fight for the nomination in decades.

Multiple state delegations stormed off the Republican National Convention floor Monday. Trump critics attempted to force a roll call vote on the convention rules package. This would enable them to vote for the candidate of their choice rather than the winner of the state primaries. Under existing Republican National Committee rules, the convention's 2,472 delegates must cast their first-round votes according to their state primary and caucus results. Convention officials dismissed the petition and passed the rules package by voice tally. The country hasn't seen a floor fight for the nomination in decades.

McAuliffe denies that, saying he hoped to sweep away a vestige of Jim Crow by undoing felon disenfranchisements that inordinately affect black people.

It's unclear when the state Supreme Court will rule, but it has expedited the case. Each side got 30 minutes of argument before the justices Tuesday morning.

The court may never get to the merits of this case, leaving an open ended question about just how much power the governor has to restore the right to vote. There are procedural hurdles first, and several justices asked a questions Tuesday not about the over-arching disagreement in this case, but about legal technicalities.

These boil down to three issues. First, do Speaker of the House William Howell, Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. "Tommy" Norment and the four Virginia voters who brought this lawsuit against the governor have standing to sue over this issue?

Another way to ask that: Have they been harmed enough to justify the case?

The other two issues are the more complex matters of prohibition and mandamus, which deal with the judiciary's ability to order the executive branch to act. Typically, the sort of actions Howell and Norment requested in this case are taken by a higher court to block the actions of a lower court, or they're used to compel government officials to perform a statutory duty.

It's unclear, legal experts said, whether this case fits either of those molds.

"I think they're going to find standing, but mandamus and prohibition are the issue," former Virginia Attorney General Anthony Troy said after watching oral arguments. "It's called an extraordinary writ, and it's very unusual."

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