The issue of voting rights for former felons is flaring in the high-profile Virginia governor’s race. And the potential re-enfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands could be at stake.
This week, the campaign of Republican Ed Gillespie (pictured) released an ad attacking Democrat Ralph Northam over Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s restoration of voting and other civil rights to ex-felons who had served their time and completed parole. Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, has made continuing McAuliffe’s policy a centerpiece of his campaign.
Originally, McAuliffe used a blanket order to restore the rights of about 206,000 former felons last year. But Republican lawmakers sued, saying he lacked the authority to issue a blanket order, and a court agreed. In response, McAuliffe began restoring rights on an individual basis. He’s done so for around 168,00 people since taking office — representing one of the most significant advances for voting rights in recent years.
“Last year, Terry McAuliffe and Ralph Northam instituted the automatic restoration of rights for violent felons and sex offenders, making it easier for them to obtain firearms and allowing them to serve on juries,” the Gillespie ad begins. It goes on to mention a man who had his rights restored soon after being found with child pornography—the result of a mistake in which rights were restored to 132 sex offenders still in custody.
Near the end of the ad, Gillespie lays out his own position:
“Virginians who have paid their debt to society and are living an honest life should have their rights restored,” he says. “Ralph Northam’s policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong.”
It’s unclear what Gillespie’s favored process for rights restoration would be. Last month, he said he’d ask Bob McDonnell and Doug Wilder, former Virginia governors of opposing parties, to try to find a way to standardize the process so that the rules don’t change according to who’s governor.
Bottom line: A win for Northam, and a continuation of the McAuliffe policy, would mean the re-enfranchisement of tens or hundreds of thousands of Virginians. A Gillespie victory, by contrast, would likely lead to the creation of a more complicated process for rights restoration, one that would almost certainly end up touching far fewer people.