Imbued with a sense of righteousness over the loss of voting rights for convicted felons, Governor Terry McAuliffe is unrepentant about his decision to restore those rights to more than 200,000 ex-felons by executive decree.
In a statement released Friday, McAuliffe decried a Virginia Supreme Court decision ruling that blocked his diktat and excoriated Virginia Republicans for wanting “to deny more than 200,000 of their own citizens the right to vote.” Said he: “I cannot accept that this overtly political action could succeed in suppressing the voices of many thousands of men and women who had rejoiced with their families earlier this year when their rights were restored.”
The statement suggested a total blindness of the difference between two things: (a) a worthy policy, and (b) the means by which that worthy policy is to be achieved.
I suspect that most Virginians would agree with McAuliffe’s goal of restoring voting rights to non-violent ex-convicts who have served their terms, although victims of violent crimes might object to the idea that the felons have “paid their debt to society.” Reasonable people can disagree over whether murderers and rapists, as opposed to shop lifters and marijuana smokers, should have their rights restored. Also, as we have seen from the clumsy roll-out of the voting rights restoration, there are numerous questions about how that process should be executed.
In a democratic republic, sorting through these issues is not the governor’s job. It is the legislature’s job. Republicans who sued to block McAuliffe’s move were doing so not to obstruct the struggle for civil and human rights but to uphold the constitutional principle of separation of powers.
“Forty states give citizens who have made mistakes and paid their debt to society a straightforward process for restoring voting rights,” said McAuliffe in his statement. Very impressive. I would suggest that he investigate how those 40 states did so. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, did so by enacting a law.
McAuliffe says he will expedite the process of restoring rights on an individual basis, as provided for under the Virginia Constitution, to the 13,000 felons who tried to register. That’s fine. He is empowered to do that. But if he wants to restore voting rights to all the rest, he’ll have to go about it the old-fashioned way: taking his case to the General Assembly and getting his proposal enacted into law. If the General Assembly is recalcitrant, as it might be, then he needs to get his foes voted out of office. It’s called democracy. And democracy and the rule of law are the foundation for the civil rights about which McAuliffe is so exercised.