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Virginia Restores Right to Vote to Thousands of Ex-Felons

Gov. Terry McAuliffe also announced a process that could see more former felons get back their right to vote in time for the fall election.
Democratic National Convention: Day Two
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-VA) delivers remarks on the second day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 26, 2016 in Philadelphia.Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

Nearly 13,000 former felons in Virginia had their right to vote restored Monday—and more could be re-enfranchised in time for the November election.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced the rights restoration at a civil-rights memorial in Richmond.

“Restoring the rights of Virginians who have served their time and live, work and pay taxes in our communities is one of the pressing civil rights issues of our day,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “I have met these men and women and know how sincerely they want to contribute to our society as full citizens again.”

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Monday's announcement was the latest salvo in an ongoing battle between McAuliffe, a Democrat, and Republican lawmakers over felon voting rights in the Old Dominion.

In April, McAuliffe announced a sweeping executive order which restored voting rights to all Virginians who had completed their prison sentences and any parole or probation—a total of around 206,000 people. State Republicans sued, calling the move a partisan effort to boost McAuliffe’s longtime ally, Hillary Clinton, in a key state. Last month, the state Supreme Court ruled McAuliffe’s order unconstitutional, saying he lacked the authority to issue a blanket rights restoration order.

Virginia’s ex-felon population, like in most states, is disproportionately African-American, and likely leans Democratic.

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McAuliffe responded to the ruling by saying he would embark on the time-consuming process of restoring rights individually to all eligible Virginians. He said at that time that he would complete the first 13,000—all those who registered to vote after having their rights restored by the original order—within a week. Since then, his office has admitted that the process is taking longer than anticipated.

The nearly 13,000 re-enfranchised Monday will now need to register to vote a second time. That's because in its ruling striking down McAuliffe’s executive action, the Supreme Court ordered that local election boards remove the newly registered ex-felons from the rolls. McAuliffe said Monday the state would mail personalized rights restoration notifications, along with voter registration applications, to all 13,000 people affected.

McAuliffe’s office also released a memo Monday that outlines a process for considering rights restoration for the roughly 193,000 remaining former felons. The process will involve a review by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, prioritizing those who have requested rights restoration, and those who have been released from supervision for the longest. The governor will then make a final decision, the memo said.

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The deadline to register to vote in the November election is October 17. How many more Virginians might be re-enfranchised in time to vote this fall?

"We can’t put a number on that at this time given that we are engaging in an individualized review of these cases," Brian Coy, a McAuliffe aide, said via email. "The Governor hopes to restore as many Virginians’ rights as expeditiously as possible."

Virginia has been a swing state in the last two presidential elections. But with polls suggesting Clinton currently has a solid lead in the state over GOP nominee Donald Trump, her campaign has said it won’t run local ads there, allowing it to focus resources on states that appear closer.

Virginia is one of several states that has seen efforts to loosen rules on voting by former felons, which disenfranchise nearly 6 million Americans, disproportionately African-Americans. Maryland this year restored voting rights to all felons no longer in prison. Kentucky made it somewhat easier for former felons to have their records expunged and regain the franchise. And Iowa’s Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit aimed at weakening the state’s ban on voting by former felons.