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.

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"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."

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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."

Jealous said that the governor's executive order could affect between "100,000 and 200,000 people," an estimate partly derived from a database that lists offenders up to 1995. "About 100,000 are nonviolent offenders. The assumption is, there's a large number of people who were not in the database" before then, he said. More than 350,000 Virginians are barred from voting, according to a January report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reforming incarceration and sentencing policy.

Jealous was baffled by the reluctance of Tim Kaine, the former Democratic governor, to adopt a similar plan while in office. "It wasn't quite clear what his reason was," Jealous said. "The flaw of politicians again and again is that they know the right thing to do, they wrestle with their consciences and they win. And the rest of us lose. [McDonnell] put principle above partisan self-interest, and that's what so remarkable about this action. It's a very big deal."

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Jealous envisions a heartening scenario for the GOP if other pols similarly step out on faith. "What's in this for the Republican Party and a Republican politician is the possibility of getting a larger share of votes from the African-American community," Jealous said.

"A Republican presidential candidate who can assure black voters that [he or she has] courage when it comes to civil rights and [is] willing to step out could pick up 15 percent more of the black vote than [GOP nominee Mitt] Romney received," Jealous said. "That's what at stake here for this governor.

"One issue does not a general commitment prove," Jealous added. "He would have to do more, have to show more. But there's real potential."

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Virginia's Corrosive Legacy

The Commonwealth of Virginia has long marched to its own drummer on felons' rights. In 1870, after the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed the right to vote, the Old Dominion went in the opposite direction, ushering in the state's felon-disenfranchisement legacy by amending the Virginia Constitution to deny voting rights to any convicted felon.

Until McDonnell's action, Virginia was one of two states in the country (Kentucky is the other) imposing a lifetime ban on restoration of citizen rights to felons. With the governor's sweeping changes, the state is pushing back on a sad legacy.

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In the past, felony-disenfranchisement laws in Virginia weren't just tolerated — they were strategized, usually with race as the motivator. Carter Glass, a Lynchburg newspaper editor and a state delegate to the 1901 Constitutional Convention, wrote about one such measure in the convention minutes, almost wistfully: "This plan … will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county … will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government."

Some may resist any rush to anoint McDonnell as the Great Emancipator 2.0. This is the same governor who, in April 2010, issued a proclamation celebrating Confederate History Month at the request of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — reviving a tradition that had been discontinued in two previous (Democratic) administrations, and doing it without so much as a mention of slavery, the "peculiar institution" that gave the Confederacy its reason for being.

A few days later McDonnell made amends, saying, "The failure to include any reference to slavery was a mistake, and for that I apologize … "

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And he's the same governor who just last year was ready to sign into law SB 484, a controversial measure passed by the state's House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure to "determine gestational age." The procedure was widely condemned by protesters and activists as state-sanctioned rape. After withering criticism, McDonnell and Virginia Republicans revised the bill, opting instead to require women to undergo the less invasive abdominal ultrasound procedure.

A Bright Future?

If McDonnell is positioning himself for a 2016 run, his state's economic picture is doing its part to make him look good. Virginia has a 5.2 percent unemployment rate — a 54-month low and the 10th lowest in the nation. For years the state has been a high-tech magnet. In the Dulles Technology Corridor, AOL, Apple, Boeing, Verizon and Northrop Grumman (among others) have headquarters or regional offices.

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The state also enjoys an increasingly diverse demographic (black people make up about 20 percent of the population; minority residents overall, about 35 percent), and a homeownership rate and median household income both higher in recent years than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There's room for other states to follow McDonnell's lead. Marc Mauer, director of the Sentencing Project, wrote in February (pdf) that Tennessee, one state over from Virginia, has felony-disenfranchisement policies that are "among the strictest in the nation." The Volunteer State "is one of just twelve states that deny voting rights not only to individuals incarcerated, on probation, or on parole, but also to ex-felons … [W]hile it is debatable whether felony disenfranchisement laws today are intended to reduce minority voting power, it is inescapable that this is their effect," Mauer wrote.

For Jealous, the new Virginia policy opens the door to nothing less than the future. "[Former offenders] won't have to keep reconfessing," he said. "They'll be able to contribute as citizens. For communities, their voices will be stronger at the ballot box, whether it's working-class white communities or working-class black communities. This gives the state the possibility of moving further down the road of reconciliation and healing from a very divisive, hurtful past — and present."

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Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root and the author of American Bandwidth: Weblogs & Essays, on the 2008 Obama campaign and the first days of his presidency. He blogs on politics and national affairs at Short Sharp Shock and Open Salon.