Virginia governor signs order restoring voting rights for felons

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Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an order on Friday restoring the voting rights of more than 200,000 convicted felons who have completed their sentences in a move that could help the Democratic nominee in November's presidential election.

By using his executive powers, the Democratic governor is circumventing the Republican majority in the state Legislature. Many of the convicts affected by the order are African-Americans or Latinos, two groups that have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic candidates in the past.

"Virginia will no longer build walls and barriers to the ballot box - we will break them down," McAuliffe said in a message on his Twitter account.

Photos of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe

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Virginia governor signs order restoring voting rights for felons
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, hugs Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as she arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton acknowledges the crowd with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe as she arrives to speak at a campaign rally in Norfolk, Va., Monday, Feb. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
National Governors Association Winter Meeting Vice Chair, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, right, accompanied by National Governors Association Winter Meeting Chair, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, speaks to the media during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Feb. 22, 2016. Herbert and McAuliffe discussed the current presidential election cycle, the Supreme Court vacancy, gun control and other topics. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2016. McAuliffe announced an agreement on an expansion plan for Interstate 66 in northern Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, speaks as Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran listens during a media briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016. Portions of Virginia are under a blizzard warning. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe wears a crossed flag pin representing the Virginian state and Cuban national flag, at a press conference after a visit to the port of the Mariel special economic development zone near Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. McAuliffe is on a two-day visit to Cuba with a delegation of businessmen exploring trade opportunities between the U.S. state of Virginia and Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks to reporters after a visit to the Mariel special economic development zone near Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. McAuliffe is on a two-day visit to Cuba with a delegation of businessmen exploring trade opportunities between the U.S. state of Virginia and Cuba. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan)
In this photo taken Tuesday June 16, 2015, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe speaks during an interview with the Associated Press during the Paris Air Show, at Le Bourget airport, north of Paris. Governors across the country have been packing their bags for all-expenses-paid trade missions abroad, spending taxpayer dollars on costly trips that have an uneven track record of yielding any tangible benefits for their states. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe announces that Stone Brewing Co., one of the nation's top 10 craft breweries, plans to build a facility in Richmond, during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Thursday, Oct. 9, 2014. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe and his wife Dorothy dance during their inaugural ball in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. McAuliffe was sworn in earlier in the day as the 72nd Governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton acknowledge supporters during inaugural ceremonies at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014. McAuliffe was sworn in Saturday as the 72nd governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Virginia Gov-elect, Terry McAuliffe, right, and his son, Peter, 11, center, look over the inaugural stand on the South Portico of the Capitol during a walk through at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. McAuliffe is due to be inaugurated as the 72nd Governor of Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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McAuliffe sees the restoration of the right to vote as addressing Virginia's "horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans," the New York Times, which first reported the governor's intentions, quoted him as saying.

Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, said a majority of the convicted felons who regained their voting rights were likely members of minority groups.

"If even a fraction of the 200,000 felons whose voting rights were restored choose to vote in the election, it could reshuffle politics of the state and reshape the electoral college," he said.

The order drew immediate criticism from John Whitbeck, chairman of the Republican Party ofVirginia.

"His decision to issue a blanket restoration, without regard to the nature of the crimes committed doesn't speak of mercy. Rather, it speaks of political opportunism," Whitbeck said in a statement.

Virginia is considered a key swing state in the 2016 election, and the governor's order could tip the balance in favor of the Democratic candidate who wins the party's nomination. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is leading the race.

While Democrat Barack Obama took Virginia both in the 2008 and 2012 elections, the Republican presidential candidates have a history of dominance in the state. Before Obama's victories, Republicans carried Virginia in every presidential election since 1952 except one. In 1964, Democrat Lyndon Johnson won in Virginia as he defeated Barry Goldwater in a national landslide.

McAuliffe tweeted a photo of himself signing the order in the state capital of Richmond, surrounded by members of his administration and others.

The governor, who said on Friday Virginia has had some of the most restrictive laws in the country for restoration of voting and civil rights has made the issue a high priority during his administration. Previous efforts have resulted in the restoration of voting rights to 18,000Virginians, he said.

The order will restore the rights of every Virginia felon who completed his or her sentence and all other requirements as of April 22, affecting 206,000 people immediately, the governor said in a press release.

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