More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November's election under a sweeping executive order by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Friday that restores their rights to vote and run for office.
The Democrat said his actions would help undo Virginia's long history of trying to suppress the black vote. It wipes out a Civil War-era provision in Virginia's constitution that was meant to block African Americans from voting.
"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. "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."
McAuliffe said he is certain he has the legal authority for this massive extension of voting rights after consulting with legal and constitutional experts, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
The governor's action means that every Virginia felon who has completed their sentence and finished any supervised release, parole or probation requirements as of April 22 will be able to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public. No longer will they have to fill out special paperwork to get voting rights restored. The administration estimates that about 206,000 people will be impacted.
Virginia House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said the delegates will review the governor's policy, which he said will "restore the rights of the most heinous criminals without batting an eye."
"Under this governor’s policy, violent criminals will be treated the same as lifelong law-abiding citizens," Howell said in a statement. "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."
Republicans called McAuliffe's move political opportunism. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell initially made it easier for non-violent felons to vote again, but GOP leaders accuse McAuliffe of trying to build up Democratic voter roles for the November election.
"I am not surprised by the lengths to which he is willing to go to deliver Virginia to Hillary Clinton in November," Howell said.
McAuliffe has made the restoration of rights of former convicts a priority of his administration. Before Friday's order, the administration had restored the rights of more than 18,000 felons, which officials said is more than the past seven governors combined.
The Washington-based Sentencing Project estimates that almost 6 million Americans are barred from voting because of laws disenfranchising former felons. Maine and Vermont are the only states that don't restrict the voting rights of convicted felons.
Such policies disproportionately prevent African Americans from voting, the group says. Virginia is among three states where more than one in five black adults have lost their voting rights, according to a recent Sentencing Project report.