Virginia GOP sues governor over restoring voting rights to felons

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RICHMOND, May 23 (Reuters) - Virginia Republicans on Monday sued to nullify Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe's order restoring voting rights to 206,000 felons, a move that could affect the November presidential election.

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The lawsuit in the Virginia Supreme Court asked justices to require the voting registrars not to sign up felons based on McAuliffe's April 22 order and to cancel felons' registrations since the order was issued.

Republicans argued that McAuliffe's order was unconstitutional. The lawsuit was headed by leaders of the Republican-controlled state legislature.

"The Governor is authorized to restore the voting rights of any convicted felon through an individualized grant of clemency, but he may not issue a blanket restoration of voting rights," the lawsuit said.

Virginia is considered a key swing state in the 2016 election. The governor's order could tip the balance in favor of the Democratic candidate who wins the party's nomination.

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Virginia GOP sues governor over restoring voting rights to 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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House Speaker William Howell said in a statement that McAuliffe's order violated 240 years of practice.

"Governor McAuliffe's executive order defies the plain text of the Constitution, flouts the separation of powers, and has no precedent in the annals of Virginia history," Howell said.

McAuliffe and other Democrats have hailed the restoration of rights to felons who have served their sentences and completed probation as being long overdue.

Since signing the order, McAuliffe has said that nearly 80 percent of the felons whose rights were restored are nonviolent offenders who who have been free for more than a decade.

Caucasian felons made up 51.5 percent of the total whose rights were restored, and African-Americans 45.9 percent.

Before McAuliffe's order, felons had to petition the governor individually for restoration of their voting rights.

About two dozen states have eased restrictions on felons casting ballots over the past two decades, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group. (Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)


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