Va. Gov. McAuliffe hits back at planned suit over felon voting rights

WASHINGTON — Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly are planning to sue Gov. Terry McAuliffe over his executive action to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who have served their sentences, but the Democratic governor says he’s not worried.

“I have the legal authority and the moral authority” to take the action, McAuliffe told WTOP on Wednesday morning.

“Virginia was [until 2013] one of four states that permanently did not allow a felon to get their voting rights back unless they went through this arduous process,” he said.

“What I did was to join what 40 other states have done. … Why should Virginia be at the bottom of the heap [regarding] restoring felons’ rights?”

Virginia House Speaker Bill Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment announced on Monday that they’ve retained a lawyer to challenge McAuliffe’s order, with Norment saying in a statement that “we are prepared to uphold the Constitution of Virginia and the rule of law by challenging Governor McAuliffe’s order in court.”

Norment added that McAuliffe’s “predecessors and previous attorneys general examined this issue and consistently concluded Virginia’s governor does not have the power to issue blanket restorations.”

McAuliffe on Wednesday countered that A.E. Dick Howard, the chairman of the commission that wrote Virginia’s constitution in 1971, has told The Washington Post that the governor has the authority to issue such an order: “I’m the only one with clemency power,” McAuliffe said.

McAuliffe went on to attack the motivations of the challengers.

“They want fewer people to vote. I think that in the best, greatest democracy on Earth, everybody ought to have a chance to vote.

“So they can … continue to show that they want to disenfranchise voters. That’s who the Republicans are. … Maybe the Republicans should read our constitution again.”

Article V, Section 12 of the Virginia constitution reads that “The Governor shall have power … to remove political disabilities consequent upon conviction.”

McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican Bob McDonnell, issued an executive order in 2013 that changed the process by which felons could regain their voting rights, streamlining the process and waiving a requirement that nonviolent offenders wait two years before applying to get their rights back.

Howell and Norment say in the statement that no taxpayer money is being used in their planned lawsuit.

MCAULIFFE, A LONGTIME FRIEND and supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, was also asked about the state of the Democratic primary race, specifically about whether the former senator and secretary of state would be able to motivate supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign to swing over to back her if she wins the nomination.

“I just go back to eight years ago,” said McAuliffe, chairman of Clinton’s 2008 campaign against future President Barack Obama. “We went all the way through the first week of June,” even winning the last contest, in North Dakota, before the nomination was decided.

He said he remembers hearing voters, especially women, swearing they wouldn’t vote for Sen. Barack Obama. “And you know what? Everybody came together at the end.”

He added that Clinton “is actually in much better shape, [counting] the number of votes and delegates,” at this point in the primary campaign than Obama was in 2008.

“She will be the nominee. … This is the Democratic Party process; we go through it, and we come together at the end.”

Speaking the morning after the Indiana primary, in which Sanders defeated Clinton and Donald Trump virtually wrapped up the Republican nomination, McAuliffe cited Trump’s statements about women, minorities and foreign relations and called the businessman “the greatest motivating, unifying force in the history of the Democratic Party.”

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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