The big news in Virginia last week was Governor Terry McAuliffe's bold move to restore voting rights to over 200,000 convicted felons who have served their time. His action could have sweeping effects on elections -- national AND local.
First, some background: a number of state laws prevent convicted criminals, particularly felons, from voting even after they leave prison. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, these laws disenfranchise almost six million Americans.
Virginia has a procedure in place for the Governor to restore voting rights, but this procedure has been interpreted (and probably intended) to require action on a case-by-case basis. Both McAuliffe and his predecessor, Bob McDonnell, had already streamlined this process to restore rights for several thousand Virginia citizens.
It's possible to see the Governor's move this week is a dramatic expansion of that effort. But his use of an executive order to grant blanket restoration for over 200,000 voters seems to leave the current restoration process behind entirely, and will almost certainly bring constitutional challenges.
Republicans blasted the move as an attempt to deliver Virginia to the Governor's pal Hillary Clinton in November. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Speaker William Howell complained that "The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States... This office has always been a steppingstone to a job in Hillary Clinton’s Cabinet."
That may be so, but the complaints are ironic considering Republicans' efforts across the country to institute voter ID requirements. Republicans (including Howell himself) claim that these laws are necessary to prevent voter fraud, but study after study shows that the fraud that ID laws might represent simply doesn't happen. Instead, Republicans are clearly hoping to make it harder for poor and minority voters, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic, to get to the polls.
In this sense McAuliffe's action is the latest salvo in the voting wars, and a smart response to Republican efforts to shrink the Democratic electorate. (We might see Democratic officials in other states attempting similar moves in the future.) This is particularly true in terms of this November's election, which will likely be settled long before any constitutional challenge makes its way through the courts.
Still, the national election isn't the only level of government affected by the Governor's order. As Norman Leahy and Paul Goldman (my colleagues at the WaPo's All Opinions are Local page) astutely observe, next year's Democratic statewide candidates may have to defend this controversial policy from Republican attacks. The fact that McAuliffe included perpetrators of violent crimes in his restoration order could be a problem for Ralph Northram and Mark Herring in what are projected to be tight races for Governor and Attorney General, respectively.
As observant as my colleagues are, they -- and most others -- are ignoring the one other race the Governor's order affects. A former colleague of the Governor is featuring prominently in photos and press coverage from Friday's event announcing the restoration order. This colleague just happened to have resigned a few days earlier to run for Richmond Mayor. From the RTD:
Levar Stoney, a Richmond mayoral candidate who worked with McAuliffe to restore rights for 18,000 ex-offenders as secretary of the commonwealth, read a quote from then-legislator Carter Glass about the voting plan adopted at the 1902 convention.
“This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years, so that in no single county will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government,” Stoney said as he introduced the governor. Public service, [Stoney] said, is about “giving voice to the voiceless and righting the wrongs.”
As Secretary of the Commonwealth, voting rights restoration was a key part of Stoney's work portfolio. But his appearance at the Governor's side, right as he launches his campaign for Mayor, can't hurt his chances with Richmond voters. This demonstrates the kind of help that working side-by-side with the state's top official can provide.
The Governor's order can affect the Mayor's race in at least two ways. First, Stoney gets an important accomplishment he can tout to Richmond voters, particularly African Americans. (This can help counter one important opponent, City Council President Michelle Mosby, who championed a similar felon rights initiative in the past.)
Second, Stoney expands the electorate for the Mayor's race. It's not clear how many of these new voters live in Richmond, nor how many of them will vote in this fall's election. But as they choose from a crowded Mayoral field, Stoney can reasonably claim he's responsible for their being able to make the choice.
Politicians have multiple incentives and reasons for what they do. In McAuliffe's case, he may genuinely believe in the importance of restoring voting rights for those members of society who have made mistakes, and paid for them. But like many political acts, this one also may help out his friends - placing one in the White House and one in Richmond City Hall.