| Daquella Manera, flickr, the commons

Governor's order on felon rights is first big issue for VA 2017 governor race

While opponents of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe's executive order restoring voting rights to as many as 200,000 ex-felons are focused on its political implications for 2016's presidential election, others think history shows it could have a substantial effect on the state's 2017 gubernatorial race.

McAuliffe's April 22 order restores voting rights, as well the right to sit on juries, hold elected office, and serve as a notary public, to felons who have served their sentences and any parole or probation requirements.

The Governor characterized it as an effort both to "break down barriers to participation in civic life," and, in light of Virginia's segregationist past, "to cast off Virginia’s troubling history of injustice."

McAuliffe's move came under immediate fire from Republicans, who charged it was an effort to promote Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

McAuliffe, a long time Clinton friend and fundraiser, is one of several co-chairmen of Hillary Clinton's Virginia campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But Paul Goldman, a former Virginia Democratic Party chairman who has also been a leading advocate of restoring felons' rights, told AMI Newswire that the real effects of McAuliffe's actions may come in 2017.

According to Goldman, "it's understandable why people would focus on the 2016 race. But that's not really the issue if you look at [McAuliffe's order] for its potential effect on an election's results.

"If we assume that roughly 30,000 of these ex-felons end up voting for Democrats, as some analysts like Nate Cohn of The New York Times have projected," he said, "obviously, this can be decisive in state races."

Goldman cited several examples, including the 1978 U.S. Senate race between Republican John Warner and Democrat Andrew Miller that  Warner won by less than 6,000 votes. 

In 2005, Republican Bob McDonnell defeated Democrat Creigh Deeds for attorney general by just 360 votes out of 1.9 million cast, a scenario that was nearly repeated in 2013, when Democrat Mark Herring defeated Republican Mark Obenshain for the post by 907 votes.

In 2014, incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Warner won re-election over Republican Ed Gillespie by 17,700 votes out of 2.1 million cast.

"Presidential elections aren't usually close in Virginia," Goldman said. "But clearly, you've had close elections on a regular basis due to lower turnout in the state's off-year elections."

He questioned McAuliffe's legal authority to issue a sweeping grant of rights to felons, suggesting that, while the matter has never been tested in court, he "suspects it will be."

In a radio interview with WNTW's Scott Lee, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who narrowly lost to McAuliffe in the 2013 gubernatorial race, called the Governor's action "unconstitutional," and politically motivated.

But he added there are a few interim steps those opposed to McAuliffe's order could take in order to stop it. "Certainly, registrars should seek a declaratory judgement action and just have [the executive order] declared unconstitutional. That's the simple way to proceed.

"I understand the General Assembly is looking at a special session," Cuccinelli added, "and that's all well and good, but since you assume he'll veto anything that comes out, and it will break down along party lines, probably the only thing they could do is pass House and Senate resolutions, and then go file suit themselves."

Others, including Craig DeRoche, senior vice-president for advocacy and public policy at the nonprofit Prison Fellowship, think both political parties should focus on redemption, not vote totals or lawsuits.

"As a conservative who has a criminal conviction and is in recovery for addiction, I think it inadvisable for one party to assume an advantage,"  DeRoche told AMI Newswire, "For instance, some leading conservative voices have acknowledged and overcome their own illegal drug use issues.  

"Why should pundits and politicians believe others who overcome drug use and illegal behavior would land on a particular side of the political spectrum?" he asked.

DeRoche added: "Our last two presidents violated the country’s drug and alcohol laws in their youth, overcame the related shortcomings, and were entrusted by the citizens with great responsibility."

"Why should we deny such a transformation is possible for others?"