RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an order on Friday restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 Virginians who have completed their sentence on prior felony convictions.
"Virginia will no longer build walls and barriers to the ballot box. We will break them down," Gov. McAuliffe said from the steps of the Capitol.
The governor urged those who had their rights restored to register to vote and show up on election day, saying "everyone with freedom to live in our communities has the right to participate in the democratic process."
Previously, Virginians with felony convictions had to apply to the governor for their right to be restored. A project called Revive My Vote launched a new online educational tool about how to vote in Virginia.
"It is Revive My Vote's goal to ensure that Virginians be able to vote, regardless of how much they knew about voting prior to this announcement," said Revive My Vote's Executive Director Mark Listes. The project will also answer questions at 1-844-932-8683. (1-844-WE2-VOTE).
However, opponents of the move saw it as an example of executive overreach aimed at bolstering Democratic votes.
"I am stunned at his willingness to restore the rights of the most heinous criminals without batting an eye. Yet, I am not surprised by the lengths to which he is willing to go to deliver Virginia to Hillary Clinton in November," said Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) in a statement. "No Governor in the history of Virginia has accepted such a sweeping view of executive power."
Speaker Howell questioned the legal authority to issue a blanket of a restoration of rights by the governor and blasted what he saw as a "transparent" effort to ensure a Clinton victory.
"The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe's governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton President of the United States. This office has always been a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton's cabinet," Howell said. "We will immediately begin a detailed review of the Governor's policy to determine what options are available to the General Assembly."
Republicans argue that violent offenders, like rapists and murderers, should be restored their voting rights, and allowed on a jury, on a case-by-case basis.
Suddenly you're going to do a blanket pardon and have people convicted of rape serving on those juries?" said Del. M. Kirkland Cox, R-Colonial Heights.
"It seems to be an election year restoration of rights that favors a political candidate that the governor backs," continued Cox, Virginia's House Majority Leader.
VCU Associate Professor of Political Science Dr. Ravi Perry says the governor's move will be a likely boost for the left in Virginia, but he believes it's the ethical decision.
"The larger moral question here is why are we the most developed country in the world, or the only developed country in the world, that actually takes away people's voting rights for felony convictions?" questioned Dr. Perry.
Supporters celebrated the announcement saying it will allow those who have paid their debt to society to fully participate in our democracy.
"Our state and our country are stronger when everyone's voice is heard," said Progress Virginia executive director Anna Scholl. "Today's historic announcement from Governor McAuliffe means a stronger commonwealth where we value and respect the voices and contributions of individuals who have made mistakes and are ready and eager to fully rejoin public life."
The governor's executive order will stay in effect until at least January of 2018 when he leaves office.
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