As if a presidential election year weren’t exciting enough, about a month after Governor Terry McAuliffe signed his April 22 bombshell executive order restoring the voting rights of 206,000 felons, General Assembly Republican leaders filed a lawsuit to keep them out of the polls.
Voter registration has skyrocketed in 2016 from this time a year ago, and election officials are divided about whether it’s the nearly 5,000 felons who have registered statewide boosting the numbers.
Albemarle registrar Jake Washburne says the State Board of Elections told localities they don’t need to keep track of felon registration and his “ballpark guess” is that between 40 and 50 have registered to vote in the county, with 14 more on hold waiting to be cleared by the secretary of the commonwealth, who maintains a list of felons whose rights have been restored.
In Charlottesville, 32 felons have registered to vote since April 22 and 15 are pending, says registrar Rosanna Bencoach.
Local resident Clara Belle Wheeler is the Republican on the three-person State Board of Elections. “Literally five minutes after the pronouncement by the governor, registrars reported they had an influx of people around the commonwealth,” she says. “The registrars had no warning about this restoration notice. This member had no prior knowledge.”
It would have been prudent, says Wheeler, to keep those names in a separate file. “Once a name is registered, it takes a great deal of time and paperwork to remove that name,” she says.
However, the same state board said felons could be entered in the state database, according to the two local registrars. “The State Board of Elections assured registrars that they can flag [felons] if they have to take them off,” says Bencoach.
Wheeler points out that two previous governors—Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Bob McDonnell—thought about doing a blanket restoration. “Their attorneys general said, ‘No, you can’t. It’s not constitutional.’”
Not only did McAuliffe restore voting rights, but his order means felons can sit on juries and run for office, and restoring voting rights is the first step to gun ownership.
Now felons can get concealed carry gun permits, and “rapists can sit on a rape case jury, murderers can sit on juries,” says Wheeler.
Indeed, according to the lawsuit, a felon is running for mayor in Richmond and in a capital case in Dinwiddie, the defense has asked that felons be included in the jury pool.
Delegate Rob Bell, who is running for attorney general in 2017, has no problem with McAuliffe restoring felon rights under the current system. “He certainly has the constitutional authority to do that one by one,” says Bell. He does object that confirmation of victim restitution is no longer required and that felons on unsupervised probation can vote.
And to the frequently cited adage that Virginia’s hurdles to felons voting are to disenfranchise African-Americans, Bell says, “That simply isn’t historically accurate. That has been part of the Virginia constitution since 1830.”
With the November presidential election looming and Virginia very much a purple state, the lawsuit was filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia to get an immediate response without having to go through the appeals process. The suit asks for a decision by August 25 to give registrars time to cancel felon registrations before absentee ballots go out September 24.
“I think everyone involved would like to have it adjudicated as soon as possible,” says Wheeler.
In Albemarle, the number of registration transactions, which can include changes of address along with new voters, is up about 200 percent over the same period last year. “There’s a whole lotta registration going on,” says Washburne. DMV registration “is one of those numbers that jumped off the page.” He believes that’s because more people are comfortable registering online.
In the city, Bencoach is seeing higher registration than in 2008 and 2012. She’s also seeing something else. “It really tugs at your heartstrings when someone comes in and says, ‘I’ve never been able to vote before,’” she says.
Aug. 20, 2015: Felons arrested for not coming clean on voter registration