LEXINGTON, Ky. — Republican and Democratic politicians across the country are deeply divided over restoring the right to vote for felons, a political fracture that affects millions of convicted criminals.
In Iowa and Kentucky, Democratic governors issued executive orders to restore voting rights to many felons only to have them rescinded by Republican governors who succeeded them.
Democratic legislators in 29 states proposed more than 270 bills over the past six years that would have made it easier for some felons to vote, but very few passed, especially in legislatures controlled by Republicans, News21 found in an analysis of state legislative measures nationwide.
‘It gives them a voice’
Richard Walker, founder of Bridging the Gap in Virginia, a nonprofit organization that helps the formerly incarcerated re-enter society, spent 14 months in prison for possession of cocaine and writing bad checks to purchase and resell stamps. Since his release in 2005, he’s been traveling across Virginia to convince felons their votes matter.
“It gives them a voice. It gives them the opportunity to say ‘I am a citizen because I do vote,’” Walker said. “Without that, folk have the feeling that they’re marginalized and that they’re not a part of society. That’s a gut-wrenching thought to say that I have no voice and I can’t vote.”
Even before his sweeping executive order, McAuliffe said he had restored voting rights to 18,000 felons by granting individual pardons.
“You take the last seven governors over their four-year terms, and I did more (restored more rights) in my two years. So this is not new,” he said.
McAuliffe told News21 at the Democratic National Convention that his actions were for moral reasons, not political reasons.
“I’m committed and passionate,” he said. “It isn’t about Election Day — it’s about letting these folks come back in and vote and feel good about themselves.”
McAuliffe issued his executive order April 22 restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who had completed the terms of their sentences, including probation and parole.
Less than a month later, major players in the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly — including House Speaker William J. Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. — challenged McAuliffe’s order with a lawsuit, arguing that the governor violated the state constitution.
The Virginia Supreme Court agreed. In a 4-3 decision in July, Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons said the court “respectfully disagreed” with McAuliffe’s belief that the governor holds the power to make blanket restorations. Howell and Norment could not be reached for comment.