In a sweeping executive action on Friday that overturns a ban that has existed since the Civil War, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to about 200,000 people who have felony convictions.
All convicted felons who have completed the terms of their sentence and their parole or probation will be eligible to vote immediately, according to the measure signed by the governor, who once served as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"Too often in both our distant and recent history, politicians have used their authority to restrict people's ability to participate in our democracy," McAuliffe said in a statement Friday morning. "Today we are reversing that disturbing trend and restoring the rights of more than 200,000 of our fellow Virginians who work, raise families and pay taxes in every corner of our Commonwealth."
Until now, people with felony convictions in Virginia had to apply to have their right to vote restored and were approved on an individual basis. About one out of every five black people in Virginia are disenfranchised because of this law, according to a statement from the governor's office explaining the action.
McAuliffe had previously restored voting rights to 18,000 Virginians and has been a vocal supporter of removing the ban on felony voting throughout his administration.Laws banning felony voting, along with poll taxes and literacy tests, "have had a disproportionately negative impact on African-American voters," read the statement from the governor's office, "and have at times been used intentionally to consolidate and preserve white control over the political process."
Coming in the middle of a presidential election year, McAuliffe's end-run around the state's Republican-controlled legislature incited its members to slam the governor's as an overreach of executive power and a nakedly political act in a critical swing state. Black voters tend to support Democrats, and McAuliffe is a close ally of Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee, who won the Virginia primary by 30 points with overwhelming African-American support. He chaired her 2008 campaign for president and co-chaired the re-election campaign of her husband Bill in 1996.
McAuliffe has fundraised for Hillary Clinton in this election cycle, while Bill Clinton previously campaigned for him when he was running for governor.
"It is hard to describe how transparent the governor's motives are. The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe's governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton," said Virginia's Republican Speaker of the House Bill Howell in a statement. "Under this Governor's policy, violent criminals will be treated the same as lifelong law-abiding citizens. Not only will these criminals have the right to vote, but they will also be serving on our juries. By using no discretion in this process, the Governor is undermining the strength of the criminal justice system and the sanctity of our civil rights."
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Under McAuliffe's action, any convict that has served his or her time and completed their supervised release can vote regardless of the severity of their crime, and activists plan to begin registering people across the state immediately, according to the New York Times. The governor set up a website that allows people in the state to check if they are eligible.
A patchwork of state laws disenfranchises about 5.85 million Americans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — allow ex-convicts to vote without any restrictions.
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