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Governor Northam Continues McAuliffe’s Felon Voting Rights Restoration

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Governor Ralph Northam has restored voting rights to ex-felons at a slower clip than his predecessor, a shift his office attributes to a clearing out of old requests under former Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson says Northam has restored voting rights to 8,481 ex-felons since he took office in January, compared to 173,000 across McAuliffe’s four year term.

“That number will sort of be a little more consistent month by month and year by year in a way that Governor McAuliffe’s numbers were not consistent because there was a large population of people that were out there that were eligible and needed to be taken care of,” she said.

For most of the last 100 years, people with felony convictions couldn’t vote in Virginia unless they got a reprieve from the governor. Data assembled by the office of Republican Governor Bob McDonald shows that most used that power sparingly.

Civil rights leaders said the rule was a tactic for suppressing the black vote with roots in the Jim Crow era. Virginia is one of only four states with lifetime voting bans for felons; most states restore voting rights after a person completes their court sentence.

McDonald loosened up the rules in 2013 by allowing some non-violent felons to vote. He also increased the pace of restoring voting rights and worked with the Department of Corrections to identify candidates for restoring voting rights.

But it was McAuliffe, a Democrat, who made national headlines after a sweeping executive order that would have restored voting rights to anyone who had completed their prison sentence and was no longer under state supervision.

Republicans challenged that action in case that reached the Virginia Supreme Court, saying it violated the state constitution and was a thinly-disguised plan to help Democrats in a swing state for 2016 presidential elections.

The court agreed the action was unconstitutional, so McAuliffe focused instead on speeding up the case-by-case review process. Republicans challenged that action but the court upheld McAuliffe’s process.

Former felons are eligible to fill out an online application if they are no longer under probation or parole.

“It probably takes two minutes to fill it out,” Thomasson said.

The state then reviews the application in a process takes between four to eight weeks, according to Thomasson.

Since the process is at the discretion of the governor, future executives could decide to change the process.