See our continuing coverage of disenfranchisement here.
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Voting in Virginia just got easier for more than 200,000 people with felony records.
Under an executive order signed today, all former felons who have completed their full sentences as of today can immediately re-register to vote, the latest move by Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, to ease the rights restoration process.
“If we are going to build a stronger and more equal Virginia, we must break down barriers to participation in civic life for people who return to society seeking a second chance. We must welcome them back and offer the opportunity to build a better life by taking an active role in our democracy,” McAuliffe said in a news release.
Those with records previously had to apply individually to the state to have their rights restored, sometimes after a waiting period of years depending on their crime’s severity. Some had to navigate forms, find certified copies of their sentencing orders and get a letter from their probation or parole officers.
Advocates of enfranchisement for former felons reported that the process often was discouraging — if people even knew they could eventually regain their right to vote.
Nationwide, more than 5 million U.S. citizens cannot vote because they have a felony conviction on their record, a policy that disproportionately affects black men, according to The Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization. Some states automatically restore voting rights, while others require individuals to petition the governor.
Felony disenfranchisement laws can affect people from voting even before they turn 18, if they are charged as adults or live in a state that prosecutes all 16- or 17-year-olds as adults.
Virginia has long been one of the strictest states in the nation when it comes to restoring voting rights to felons. But a series of executive orders, beginning under Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, and continuing under McAuliffe, have made it easier.
In Virginia, a felony disenfranchisement law has been on the books since the Civil War. Some political leaders have been explicit that the law was intended to prevent black voters from going to the polls, according to a summary by the state. All told, the law prevents 20 percent of the black population from voting in Virginia.
“Thus, despite the progress Virginia has made erasing the vestiges of slavery and segregation on so many fronts, this law continues to disenfranchise racial minorities and other citizens who have paid their debt to society and are otherwise qualified to vote,” the summary said.
The policy change quickly provoked political blowback, in part because opponents see it as a bid to add more Democratic voters to the rolls before the presidential election.
“It is hard to describe how transparent the governor’s motives are. The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States,” said Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican, in a statement. He also said the policy oversteps executive authority and that rights restoration should not be automatic.
“That policy should take into account the nature of the crimes committed, whether they have paid back their victims and the court system, and their willingness to serve as productive members of society,” Howell said.
The president of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks, said in a statement, “History shows when people are denied the right to vote, the loss of representation weakens our neighborhoods and communities, and furthers systemic inequality. ... we hope more states follow Governor McAuliffe’s lead. Restoring voting rights to incarcerated individuals who have served their time is an imperative to a fair and just democracy while punitive measures only serve to further disenfranchise and isolate ex-offenders.”
McAuliffe plans to issue monthly executive orders restoring ex-felons’ right to vote. A future governor could overturn his decision.