Virginia Governor gives 206,000 felons the right to vote, flouting state constitution’s intent

Virginia Governor gives 206,000 felons the right to vote, flouting state constitution’s intent

Democratic “Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia will use his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons, circumventing his Republican-run legislature. The action will overturn a Civil War-era provision in the state’s Constitution,” reported the New York Times earlier today. “The sweeping order, in a swing state that could play a role in deciding the November presidential election, will enable all felons who have served their prison time and finished parole to register to vote. Most are African-Americans, a core constituency of Democrats, Mr. McAuliffe’s political party.” Even murderers and rapists are now allowed to vote.

Where do governors get the power to “overturn” a “provision in the state’s Constitution,” as the New York Times puts it? Governors take an oath to uphold the state constitution, not overturn it. As the Richmond Times-Dispatch notes, The Constitution of Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since the Civil War…. Previous governors have said that they thought a wholesale restoration of rights would require a change to the Virginia Constitution.”

Objecting to McAuliffe’s order, which was issued today around 11 a.m., “Republicans pointed to a 2010 letter written by an attorney for [then] Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, stating that a blanket restoration of rights would amount to a ‘troubling’ rewrite of state law and the Constitution.”

This looks like an obvious attempt to change the result of close elections in a key swing state by changing the electorate itself (felons vote lopsidedly for the Democrats).

Gov. McAuliffe’s action also allows felons to “serve on juries.” Do we really need violent felons, perjurers, and thieves serving on juries? And voting on ballot initiatives in Virginia that make law? Is lawmaking a function to be performed by law breakers? Or by law-abiding people?

If a felon can vote “even if a felon has not completed payment of court fees and restitution,” doesn’t that reduce the incentive to do so?  (That is how the Times-Dispatch describes the governor’s vote-restoration policy).

I can see the argument that perhaps non-violent felons who have paid their debt to society (and compensated their victims, if any) should be allowed to vote, but this action allows even violent felons who have not paid their debt to society or compensated their victims to vote and serve on juries.

Nor is there a fairness argument for allowing violent felons to vote. Historically, society has not allowed some people to vote, including children, noncitizens, felons, and the mentally incompetent. That is because we have certain minimum standards before giving someone the power to participate in the solemn enterprise of selecting lawmakers and government officials. People who commit serious crimes against their fellow citizens do not qualify.

Hans Bader

Hans Bader

Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department. Hans writes for and has appeared on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”


For your convenience, you may leave commments below using Disqus. If Disqus is not appearing for you, please disable AdBlock to leave a comment.