Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia announced Thursday that he’s restored the voting rights of 156,000 former felons — more than any governor in history, his office said.
It’s the latest development in a battle between the Democratic governor and Virginia’s Republican-controlled legislature over re-enfranchising ex-felons — one McAuliffe appears ultimately to be winning.
Last April, McAuliffe issued a sweeping executive order that restored voting rights to around 206,000 former felons who had completed their prison sentences and any parole or probation. That brought the state in line with most others, which automatically re-enfranchise former felons upon completion of their full sentence, or when they get out of prison.
But Republicans in the legislature sued, charging that the move was a political scheme to help Hillary Clinton, a longtime close McAuliffe ally. A divided state Supreme Court ruled the order unconstitutional, saying the governor lacked the authority to restore rights via a blanket order.
In response, McAuliffe said he would restore rights individually, but by the summer his office had acknowledged that it was taking longer than expected. In August, his office announced a process for restoring the rights of the roughly 193,000 Virginians who he hadn’t yet got to.
In a statement Thursday announcing the 156,000 restorations, McAuliffe said he’d surpassed the record of 155,000 set by Charlie Crist as governor of Florida, using a clemency board. McAuliffe added that Virginia should pass a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to restore voting rights in a blanket order.
“Expanding democracy in Virginia has been my proudest achievement during my time as Governor,” McAuliffe said in the statement. “The Virginians whose rights we have restored are our friends and neighbors. They are living in our communities, raising families, paying taxes, and sending their children to our schools. Restoring their voting rights once they have served their time does not pardon their crimes or restore their firearm rights, but it provides them with a meaningful second chance through full citizenship.”
Virginia and Maryland have led the way in restoring the voting rights of former felons in recent years, but several other states have taken steps in that direction. A campaign to use a ballot initiative to reform the process in Florida, where more than a quarter of all disenfranchised U.S. ex-felons live, is moving ahead.