Virginia GOP lawmakers to sue over felons’ voting rights

Gov. Terry McAuliffe holds up the order he signed to restore rights to felons in Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Friday, April 22, 2016. More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November's election under a sweeping executive order by McAuliffe announced Friday that restores their rights to vote and run for office. (Mark Gormus /Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican lawmakers in Virginia will file a lawsuit challenging Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to allow more than 200,000 convicted felons to vote in November, GOP leaders said Monday.

Republicans argue the governor has overstepped his constitutional authority with a clear political ploy designed to help the campaign of his friend and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in the important swing state this fall.

“Gov. McAuliffe’s flagrant disregard for the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law must not go unchecked,” Senate Republican Leader Thomas Norment said in a statement. He added that McAuliffe’s predecessors and previous attorneys general examined this issue and concluded Virginia’s governor can’t issue blanket restorations.

Republicans have hired Charles J. Cooper, a Washington, D.C., attorney known for defending California’s ban on gay marriage before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. GOP leaders did not say when they will file the lawsuit. They said it would not be paid for using taxpayer dollars.

The pending legal fight highlights the important role Virginia will likely play in this year’s presidential contest. Clinton could benefit from a surge of new minority voters, who typically vote Democratic. Although even if all the 200,000 ex-felons signed up, they would represent less than 1 percent of total registered voters in the state.

McAuliffe has said the move was not politically motivated.

A lawyer for former Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine said in 2010 that the restoration of rights must be done on a case-by-case basis. A blanket order restoring voting rights would be a “rewrite of the law,” Mark Rubin, a counselor to Kaine, said in a letter at the time.

A spokesman for McAuliffe said Republicans have yet to express any specific constitutional objections to the executive order.

“The governor is disappointed that Republicans would go to such lengths to continue locking people who have served their time out of their democracy,” Brian Coy said in a statement. “These Virginians are qualified to vote and they deserve a voice, not more partisan schemes to disenfranchise them.”

Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky and Florida are the only states that strip all felons of their voting rights for life unless a state official restores them, according to the Washington D.C.-based Sentencing Project. Such policies make black Americans of voting age four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, the group says.

McAuliffe says people who have served their time should be given a second chance to exercise their civic duties. He has also said he’s certain he has such authority after consulting with legal and constitutional experts, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat.

The governor’s order enables every Virginia felon to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public if they have completed their sentence and finished any supervised release, parole or probation requirements as of April 22.

The administration estimates this population to include about 206,000 people. In the future, the governor will act month by month to restore the rights of felons who complete all these requirements.

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