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Virginia governor pushes back on critics of felons voting rights order

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe pushed back against critics of his executive order restoring certain civil rights to felons, calling them "hysterics," and mockingly saying his actions have not "destroyed the Commonwealth, burned the Capitol, or caused mass riots." 

Appearing on the monthly "Ask the Governor" program on WRVA radio in Richmond Wednesday morning, McAuliffe brushed aside Republican accusations his office failed to properly screen the list of 206,000 violent and non-violent felons to exclude those who were either still in custody, or committed high-profile crimes.

He said that with "any massive data file, you’re going to have issues," adding that his office was dealing with "gigantic lists," which means "you’re going to have data problems."

In a memorandum circulated to the media on Tuesday, House Speaker William J. Howell's office noted that, after a Washington Post story found 132 sex offenders still in state custody because they were deemed too violent to be  released, the governor's office quickly deleted those felons' names from the rights restoration list.

McAuliffe dismissed the issue. "No one has accidentally had their rights restored." He made a veiled reference to Nottoway County commonwealth's attorney Terry Royall, who said the list clean-up was done to cover up a politically damaging mistake. 

McAuliffe said the "132 sex offenders ... they don’t get their rights back," adding that he got "a kick out of some of these commonwealth’s attorneys calling the press before they call us [regarding errors]."

"There's a lot of politics around this. I get it." 

Since issuing his order restoring to 206,000 felons the right to vote, sit on juries, hold elected office and serve as a notary public, McAuliffe has come under sustained criticism from Republican legislators, who filed suit in Virginia's Supreme Court challenging his order's constitutionality.

The suit contends the governor has no authority to issue a blanket rights restoration, and that his order effectively amended the state's constitution. The court will hear arguments in the case in July.

A second lawsuit, filed in Bedford County Circuit Court by Judicial Watch last week, seeks an injunction to stop felons covered under McAuliffe's order from appearing on Virginia’s voting rolls as eligible voters.

McAuliffe said his order puts Virginia in line with 40 other states, who restore some or all voting rights to felons once their sentences have been served. 

"Other states have gone through the same issues," with data management, he said, adding "there's no economic Armageddon," and  no "murders and rapists running down the streets." 

His order specifically bars felons who got their voting and other civil rights restored from possessing firearms. Virginia courts, however, with a recommendation from a commonwealth's attorney, can restore gun rights to felons who have had their other civil rights restored by a governor. 

Some commonwealth's attorneys have complained their offices will now be forced to use scarce resources to properly screen those felons who apply to have their gun rights restored, something that previous governors did as part of the process of restoring felons' rights on a case-by-case basis.

McAuliffe was unmoved, saying the attorneys should "do your job" and "work a little harder" to decide which felons will be allowed to possess firearms.
"If you give the gun rights to someone who shouldn't have had them, that was your decision.”

Howell spokesman Matt Moran said on his Twitter feed that "instead of disparaging [commonwealth's attorneys], telling others to do their job, blaming press & passing the buck, [Gov. McAuliffe] should take responsibility."

McAuliffe also dismissed allegations his order was intended to help Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, of which he is a state co-chairman. "The average person [covered by his order] is a 46 year old white male.That’s not our demographic."

He added that he enjoyed the coverage the issue has received in the media. "I love this," he said, "keep doing this, let’s keep getting this out there. I get even more press."