Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said on Friday that he had restored voting rights to more people in his state than any other governor in American history.
McAuliffe’s office said in a statement the governor had restored voting rights to 156,000 eligible people. The previous record, set by the administration of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (D) was 155,000.
Virginia is one of a handful of states where voting rights can only be restored by the governor or a court. Last year, McAuliffe signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 200,000 former felons, but the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that he could not issue such a broad blanket order. The court ruled that he could only restore the rights on a case-by-case basis, and McAuliffe pledged to restore the rights of the 200,000 people individually.
“Expanding democracy in Virginia has been my proudest achievement during my time as Governor,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “Over the course of the last year, I have had the privilege to meet with many of the men and women affected by this order, and their stories inspired us as we continued this fight against the hostile opponents of progress. The Virginians whose rights we have restored are our friends and neighbors.
“They are living in our communities, raising families, paying taxes, and sending their children to our schools. Restoring their voting rights once they have served their time does not pardon their crimes or restore their firearm rights, but it provides them with a meaningful second chance through full citizenship.”
“We are grateful for Governor McAuliffe’s leadership in expanding our democracy,” said Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a progressive advocacy group in the state that has been lobbying for restoration rights for years. “Restoring these basic civil rights has profoundly transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Virginians who are able to more fully participate in their communities.”
A spokeswoman for former Florida Gov. Crist, who is now serving in Congress, said he wasn’t upset at all the record was broken.
“I know my boss would congratulate Governor McAuliffe on the work he’s doing in his state, as well,” said Erin Moffet, the spokeswoman.
Critics of felon disenfranchisement laws argue that they are a vestige of the Jim Crow South and that they disproportionately affect African-Americans. In 2014, The Sentencing Project, a policy reform campaign, estimated that one in five African-Americans were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction in the age of mass incarceration.
In Florida, the state Supreme Court recently signed off on language for a possible 2018 ballot measure that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to former felons after they complete their sentences, probation or parole. Twenty-one percent of Florida’s African-American voting age population can’t vote because state law strips them of the right unless they get clemency from the governor.