Virginia State Republican Party fights to suppress votes that may prove critical in the battleground state this November.
Republican lawmakers in Virginia announced Monday that they were filing a lawsuit against Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe to block an executive order he introduced in late-April which would restore the voting rights of more than 200,000 citizens with prior felony convictions.
The case will now argue before the Virginia Supreme Court that McAuliffe unconstitutionally exceeded his executive power by signing the unilateral order establishing the full restoration of voting rights for citizens who have already served their felony sentences and completed supervised parole/probation.
Prior to this historic move, Virginia had been one of just four U.S. states still permanently disenfranchising citizens with prior felony convictions.
Following the announcement, scores of voting rights advocates have begun the arduous task of registering as many of this newly enfranchised population as possible before November, where they could potentially tip the presidential election in a crucial swing state.
Nearly 4,000 ex-offenders have already been registered in the state since April.
“I’ve had grown men cry and hug me. I’ve seen women do the happy dance and shout,” said Karen Fountain with Virginia New Majority, the group taking the lead on the registration campaign. “You can see in that moment that they feel they are worth something. They go from no self esteem to self esteem. It’s just great to see.”
Fountain has been going out six days a week, clipboard in hand, combing the lower-income neighborhoods of Richmond, Virginia looking for people who have just regained the right to vote. One of the dozens of people she registered was Virginia native Randy Tyler, who lost his voting rights in 1995 due to a grand larceny conviction.
“Before, I felt like I was left out. I felt like even though I live in America, I wasn’t a part of it,” he told ThinkProgress. “But now, I have the privilege of saying who I want to elect for the presidency. I might be the one vote that makes a difference. I feel like a citizen of the United States again.”
If Republicans win this lawsuit, they will not only block advocates like Fountain from registering more former felons to vote, but they’ll strip away the registration from those like Tyler who have already filed their paperwork.
The lawsuit is being brought by House Speaker William Howell and Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment, and explicitly states its intention in asking justices to prohibit election officials from registering felons and to cancel any registrations that have already occurred since April 22.
“We simply cannot ignore this unprecedented example of executive over-reach,” Howell said announcing the suit this morning.
“Gov. McAuliffe’s executive order defines the plan text of the Constitution, flouts the separation of powers, and has no precedent in the annals of Virginia history. The governor simply may not, with the stroke of the pen, unilaterally suspend and amend the Constitution,” reads the lawsuit.
McAuliffe’s administration responded back immediately vigorously defending the action, saying they are confident it will withstand the legal challenge.
“These individuals have served their time and are now living, raising families and paying taxes in our communities – this suit is an effort to continue to treat them as second-class citizens,” McAuliffe said in an official statement, “This is simply the latest Republican attack on the voting rights of qualified Virginians who deserve a voice in their society, and we will oppose it vigorously.”