In a 4-3 ruling on Friday, the Virginia Supreme Court [official website] held [opinion, PDF] that Governor Terry McAuliffe’s [official website] executive order [order, PDF] granting a blanket restoration of the state’s felon voting rights is unconstitutional. The voter-disqualification provision in Article II of Virginia’s Constitution [text] provides that “[n]o person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority.” Article II also enables the Governor to consider and act on any request from felons to have their voting rights restored. Noting that “All prior Governors exercised their clemency powers — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restorations— on an individualized case-by-case basis taking into account the specific circumstances of each,” the Court stated that “we are aware of no point in the history of the Commonwealth that any Governor has even asserted the power to issue … sua sponte clemency order of any kind, whether to restore civil rights or grant a pardon, to an entire class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request.” The civil rights restored by Governor McAuliffe’s order included the rights to vote, hold public office, serve on a jury, and to act as a notary public. The governor previously noted [NPR news report] the racial injustice that resulted from depriving felons of the right to vote, given the higher incarceration rates of African-American communities. He also stated in an interview to NPR [Interview transcripts, text], “I mean, they’ve served their time. They’re done with the system …. People make mistakes in life. You shouldn’t have to live with that for the rest of your life. I believe in redemption.”
Voting rights have been the subject of numerous legal challenges across the US, particularly in a presidential election year. Last month a federal judge ruled that Ohio’s elimination of the state’s early in-person voting [JURIST report] was unconstitutional and in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Earlier in May a federal judge ruled that Virginia’s voter identification law, which requires that voters have a valid form of ID either before voting or within three days after voting, is constitutional [JURIST report]. Also in May a federal judge ruled that Kansas cannot require voters to provide proof of citizenship [JURIST report] when registering to vote. In April a federal judge upheld [JURIST report] North Carolina’s voter ID law. In February the Maryland Senate overrode a veto by Governor Larry Hogan to pass a bill that will allow felons to vote [JURIST report] before they complete parole or probation.