What Will Virginia’s New Governor Do About Felony Disenfranchisement?

Virginia just dodged a bullet to voting rights by electing McAuliffe over Cuccinelli. But how far will the new governor actually go to restore felons' ability to vote?

By Brentin Mock Nov 07, 2013

Democrat Terry McAuliffe defeated his Republican opponent Ken Cuccinelli Tuesday in the Virginia governor’s race and the differences between the two candidates stances on most social issues couldn’t have been greater. Take for example, immigration, an issue on which Cuccinelli sided with the most extreme conservatives. As attorney general he urged law enforcement officers in the state to inquire about the immigration statuses of anyone stopped or arrested. 

That, along with comparing immigrant families to rats, ticked Latino voters off — they broke 66 percent for McAuliffe, according to the political research group Latino Decisions, which also estimated that 63 percent of Asian-Americans and more than 90 percent of African-Americans went for McAuliffe as well.

Another huge issue impacting people of color in Virginia — mainly blacks and Latinos — is the state’s law banning those with felony convictions from voting until the governor grants them clemency. Currently, an estimated one out of five black Virginians couldn’t vote Tuesday because of the conviction prohibition.

Earlier this year, Governor Bob McDonnell eased those restrictions by granting voting rights restoration to those convicted of non-violent felonies, but only on a person-by-person basis. Activists in the state are pushing for full, automatic rights restoration for all formerly convicted Virginians, violent or not, meaning as soon as citizens leave prison they would immediately be able to vote.

Had Cuccinelli become governor, he may not have offered full, automatic voting rights restoration to former felons. In May, he headed up a task force to explore whether it was legal for the governor to grant blanket restoration. His report found that the governor could only do it piecemeal, as it now stands, and that the felony disenfranchisement law could only be upended by amending the state constitution. Voting rights attorneys and experts disagreed with the task force’s findings. 

But there’s no reason to believe that Cuccinelli would have ever gone beyond what his own task force declared. It’s even harder to believe when considering Cuccinelli’s voting rights record in general. He is, after all, the attorney general who successfully pushed for a strict voter ID law. And when the U.S. Supreme Court discarded the coverage formula for the Voting Rights Act’s strongest protections against voter discrimination in his state, he equivocated those safeguards with "running to Mommy," and said the justices "get my level of respect" for their decision. 

Add to that the voter purges that happened on his watch, leading to as many as 40,000 voters stripped from voter rolls on dubious terms, and you have a candidate who might even have been willing to roll back rights restorations if given the chance as governor.

McAuliffe, on the other hand, has said in campaign materials that as governor he "will build off the progress Governor McDonnell has made to automatically restore voting rights to non-violent felons who have paid their debts to society."

There’s no indication that he will improve upon McDonnell’s policy by extending rights restoration to those convicted of violent felonies or automatic restoration for all, but he at least does not have the restrictions Cuccinelli had.

"I would hope he goes above and beyond McDonnell’s record," says Tram Nguyen, co-director of the grassroots organizing team Virginia New Majority. "At the end of the day I think the process needs to be automatic."

As for McAuliffe’s broader voting rights record, he has said he will oppose voter ID laws, support non-partisan redistricting laws, and would propose a state-level version of the Voting Rights Act, including a pre-clearance provision that would have the State Board of Elections review election changes before they are made.

None of these are part of his official platform, and none will be simple to do — or in voter ID’s case, undo — without help from the Republican-dominated general assembly.

But perhaps those legislators saw the stats around voters of color running far away from Cuccinelli, and the slight shift left around the country, and are adjusting their stances accordingly.