Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe today issued an executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 200,000 people who have completed their felony sentences. Virginia previously had the fourth highest rate of felony disenfranchisement in the nation and the third highest for African Americans.
“Today’s action marks a milestone in the campaign to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions,” stated Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project. “Disenfranchisement policies are fundamentally at odds both with democracy and with the need to support individuals in their reentry from prison.”
Virginia is one of only four states in the nation – along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky – to disenfranchise all individuals with felony convictions for life. The only means of regaining voting rights in these states is through action by a governor or pardons board.
Governors in each of the other three lifetime ban states have granted broad restoration of rights in the past decade, but Gov. McAuliffe’s action is the largest to date. In 2005, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 80,000 citizens, a policy that was overturned by incoming Gov. Terry Branstad in 2011. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist eased the rights restoration process for individuals with nonviolent convictions in 2007, leading to restoration of voting rights for more than 100,000 individuals, but that policy was revised by incoming Gov. Rick Scott in 2011. And in Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear restored voting rights to an estimated 100,000 individuals with nonviolent felony convictions in 2015, but that policy was overturned by incoming Gov. Matt Bevin in 2016. In each of these states, the policy reversal did not affect individuals who had their rights restored by the previous governor.
Currently, an estimated 5.8 million people are disenfranchised in the 48 states and the District of Columbia, which maintain such policies.Three-quarters (75%) of this population are not incarcerated, but are living in the community on probation or parole supervision, or have completed their sentence. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system result in high rates of disenfranchisement for African Americans in particular, with one of every 13 (7.7%) black adults nationally ineligible to vote.
Today’s action extends the national movement to reconsider felony disenfranchisement policies that has resulted in 23 states enacting reforms since 1997. Earlier this year the Maryland legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto, extending voting rights to individuals currently on probation or parole supervision.