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One U.S. governor's quest to restore former criminals' voting rights

Posted September 5

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is on a mission, one that he won't let anyone — even his state's supreme court — get in the way of.

Virginia is one of four states that permanently disenfranchises residents with past felony convictions, so when McAuliffe announced in April that he was using his executive order to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons, there was some pushback.

Outraged Republicans promptly pointed out some of the felons whose rights were restored included sex offenders still in custody and murderers serving probation in other states. They also accused him of attempting to put more Democrats in the system before the November elections to boost numbers for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

Republican legislators brought McAuliffe to the Virginia Supreme Court, where a judge ruled against him saying that while he does have the power to restore voting rights on an individual basis, he may not do so with one sweeping order.

The 13,000 felons who had already re-registered to vote by then were once again placed on a no-voting list.

But McAuliffe quickly promised he would try again, this time by using an autopen to ensure 13,000 felons were re-enfranchised within the week and that all 200,000 would be able to vote by the following week. And he almost made it.

It technically took a month to restore the rights of those first 13,000 people — and his office says he used photos of his signature instead of using the autopen — but McAuliffe announced this week that he will soon have all 200,000 back on the voting list.

“I personally believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every single human being,” McAuliffe said in a speech following his announcement. “These individuals are gainfully employed. They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop at our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior, second-class citizens.”

The issue of disenfranchising U.S. citizens for past crimes has long been a point of debate but often becomes most prominent in election years. A May investigation by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group, found there are currently 5.85 million Americans who are restricted from voting because of felony charges.

A study by McAuliffe's office found that 80 percent of the felons his office is trying to restore rights to committed nonviolent crimes and that the court's decision is "effectively disenfranchising 1 in 5 of the state's African-American voters."

"Excluding Virginians from the ballot, even after they’ve paid their debts to society, is a cruel, inhumane reminder of past mistakes,” said Tram Nguyen, the executive director of the nonpartisan group New Virginia Majority told ThinkProgress. “Importantly, today’s ruling validates entrenched interests in the Virginia General Assembly bent on silencing a large swath of Black Virginians in order to maximize their political power.”

Email: sweber@deseretnews.com; Twitter: @sarapweber

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