The GOP Case against Restoring Felon Rights

May 6, 2016

Does Governor Terry McAuliffe have the power to automatically restore voting rights to former felons who have served their time? The governor and his lawyers say they do. But Republicans may be on the verge of launching a lawsuit challenging that.

Governor McAuliffe announcing the decision
Credit Mallory Noe-Payne

  When Governor McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to more than two hundred thousand former felons, he took a leap no other previous governor has ever dared take. That includes some governors who were interested in automatic restoration of rights, meaning the individual doesn’t have to fill out an application and wait for the paperwork to go through before registering to vote.

“I think it’s going to be frowned upon. I don’t think this view is going to hold up," says Virginia legal expert Rich Kelsey. “The law has always been interpreted and applied the same way by every former sitting governor, and now you have essentially a change in the constitution by executive order."

Opponents of the governor’s executive order point to language in the Virginia Constitution saying no “person” convicted of a felony can vote unless “his” civil rights have been restored. So the legal question is this: Does that language require rights be restored on a case-by-case basis?

Carl Tobias at the University of Richmond law school doesn’t think so. He says, “I don’t that that trumps the other language in a different article, which talks about restoring rights."

Ultimately it might be up to a judge to reconcile two different parts of the Virginia Constitution.