Felon Voting in Virginia, Court Says No, Governor Says Yes

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The Virginia Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled as unconstitutional Governor Terry McAuliffe’s executive order to restore voting rights to 200,000 felons who had completed their term of incarceration and period of probation or parole. The July 22, 2016, decision confirmed that the governor can restore felon voting rights on a case-by-case basis but not en masse.

Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, in the majority opinion, wrote: “Never before have any of the prior 71 Virginia Governors issued a clemency order of any kind — including pardons, reprieves, commutations, and restoration orders — to a class of unnamed felons without regard for the nature of the crimes or any other individual circumstances relevant to the request.”

McAuliffe reacted to the court’s decision by stating in a press release that he “will expeditiously sign nearly 13,000 individual orders to restore the fundamental rights of the citizens who have had their rights restored and registered to vote. And I will continue to sign orders until I have completed restoration for all 200,000 Virginians.”

According to the New York Times, nearly half of the affected felons in Virginia are African-American, a “core constituency of Democrats.” Republicans argued that McAuliffe, a Democrat, was trying to help Hillary Clinton win over the swing state of Virginia. McAuliffe countered, “It is a disgrace that the Republican leadership of Virginia would lead a lawsuit to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote.”

Felon voting laws vary by state. In 10 states, a felon may lose the vote permanently, even after the term of incarceration, parole, probation, and fines are completed. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated felons to vote by absentee ballot.


Erin Kelley, “Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Virginia,” brennancenter.org, Aug. 1, 2016

Donald W. Lemons, “Upon a Petition for Writs of Mandamus and Prohibition,” courts.state.va.us, July 22, 2016

Terry McAuliffe, “Statement on the Virginia Supreme Court Decision on the Restoration of Civil Rights,” commonwealth.virginia.gov, July 22, 2016

Fenit Nirappil and Jenna Portnoy, “Va. High Court Invalidates McAuliffe’s Order Restoring Felon Voting Rights,” washingtonpost.com, July 22, 2016

Katie Reilly, “Court Strikes Down Virginia Order Restoring Voting Rights to Ex-Felons,” time.com, July 23, 2016

Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Erik Eckholm, “Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Felons,” nytimes.com, Apr. 22, 2016

Laura Vozzella, “Felon Voting Case Could Have Bearing on Next Year’s Race for Va. Attorney General,” washingtonpost.com, July 25, 2016