Virginia Reinstates Voting Rights to Violent Felons—What States Will Be Next?

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Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order marks a major victory for activist organizations such as the New Virginia Majority. But it’s a potentially fragile victory.

By Julie Morse


Terry McAuliffe voting in McLean, Virginia, on November 5, 2013. (Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In a landmark executive order signed last week, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored the voting rights of more than 200,000 former felons, including violent offenders. Until now, former inmates needed to apply before they could re-gain the right to vote. Now, ex-convicts who have completed their parole requirements are automatically able to register to vote without a special petition.

The ruling carries special weight among black communities—25 percent of African Americans living in Virginia who were barred from voting based on their past convictions will now get to vote.

“Wow, this is incredible, I finally feel like a full human being.”

Although McAuliffe has long been advocating for broader voting rights, the decision still came as a surprise to many. In fact, the New Virginia Majority, a community organization that focuses on civic engagement, have been working since 2007 to restore voting rights for ex-felons.

According to co-executive director of the New Virginia Majority, Tram Nguyen: “We saw senior citizens who had never registered to vote before cry because they were finally able to. We had a man say, ‘Wow, this is incredible, I finally feel like a full human being.’”

In 2012, Nguyen and her team partnered with the Advancement Project, an organization that uses legal analysis to promote social justice. During their collaboration, they discovered that governors have full authority to reinstate voting rights. Their findings quickly led then-Governor Bob McDonnell to remove the two-year waiting period for voting rights restoration for ex-felons and eliminating the application process for those formerly convicted of non-violent felonies. When McAuliffe was sworn in, he maintained McDonnell’s order, and, in his first two and a half years, restored voting rights for over 18,000 ex-felons.

There’s positive momentum for voting rights in other states too. On March 16, Maryland’s legislature voted to override Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of the Rights Restoration Bill, which means that ex-felons are now automatically allowed to register upon release from prison. In January, the Wyoming House of Representatives passed a proposal eliminating the voting rights restoration application process for former non-violent offenders. In 2013, Delaware canceled the five-year waiting period for ex-felons, except for those convicted of murder, manslaughter, and felonies against public administration.

While some states have broadened voting rights for rehabilitated criminals, others have created more barriers for ex-felons to vote. In 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency instated a waiting period—between five and seven years—for non-violent offenders before they’re allowed to apply for a reinstatement of voting rights . That same year in Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad reversed a 2005 policy that automatically registered ex-felons to vote after they completed parole. Now, ex-felons in Iowa must undergo a lengthy and involved application process to get their voting rights reinstated.

There’s a fear that McAuliffe’s ruling could be reversed in the future. “We’ve always known that if we ever succeed in getting a governor to do something like what McAuliffe did, it would be short-lived,” Nguyen says.

Proponents of the Virginia measure are apprehensive about losing ground after a hard eight-year fight. “After you work for something for so long, it can take its toll on you,” Nguyen says. “It’s like, are we going to win this year? Year after year.”

For the moment, Virginia is too busy celebrating the monumental ruling to worry about potential future changes. “What he did was historic,” Tram says. “It was the single most significant thing any governor has done around voting rights.” Although there’s a chance that McAuliffe’s ruling might be short-lived, it stands as a precedent for other states to follow.