Felon Voting Rights: A Boon for GOP?

The Virginia governor's bold move to restore rights may help bring black voters to the Republican Party.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell speaks during the 2012 Republican National Convention. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

(The Root) — Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s decision this week to restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons returned to society is already different things to different people. It’s a sign of a welcome and surprising centrism from the leader of the state called “the cradle of the Confederacy.” It’s one of the most politically counterintuitive moves from a Republican governor in a Southern state in a long time.

Mostly, it’s an uncharacteristically bold conservative reach for the center — and for minority voters, in a state apparently turning its back on some of its corrosive past. It could also be McDonnell’s first dramatic step onto the national stage, positioning him optically as someone with vision and reach enough to be a possible presidential contender in 2016.

“Once somebody has done their probation, parole or incarceration and they’ve paid all their fines and costs and don’t have any pending charges, we’re gonna automatically restore their voting rights and their civil and constitutional rights,” he said on Thursday’s Morning Joe program on MSNBC. McDonnell will restore rights on a case-by-case basis, something he’s been doing piecemeal since taking office in 2010. He has restored voting rights for more than 4,800 felons, more than any other governor in the Commonwealth’s history.

McDonnell, who opened the state’s General Assembly in January advocating for the change in felons’ status, made the move independently — in what amounts to an executive order — after his measure was defeated in committee. “We tried to get a constitutional amendment passed this session, with Republican and Democrat support … and that failed,” the governor said. “Because of that, I’m using all the power I’ve got as the chief executive under the [state] Constitution to automatically restore rights on an individualized basis.”

The change goes into effect July 15. The process will be streamlined; felons will receive notice of the governor’s decision individually within 60 days of application.

“America is a land of opportunity and second chances, a land where we cherish and protect our constitutional rights. For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights,” McDonnell said in a press release from his office.

Principle Above Politics

There’s been praise from unlikely places. “For too long, Virginia has been successful in implementing a law designed to target minority voters: one in five African-American adults in the state is disenfranchised,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire G. Gastañaga in a Wednesday statement. “This expedited process is a move towards repairing some of this damage. We look forward to working with the Governor as he implements the new system.”

In an interview with The Root, NAACP President Ben Jealous praised McDonnell for putting policy above politics. “What makes this courageous is that he did not take politics into consideration,” Jealous said. “This is clearly about principle; he believes in the principle of redemption. In the past, we’ve met with Democratic leaders, but we also sat down with Republican leaders who share the same conviction and believe in the sacredness of the right to redemption.”