By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG and ERIK ECKHOLM
Gov. Terry McAuliffe held up the signed executive order at a ceremony outside the state capitol in Richmond, Va., on Friday. CHET STRANGE FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
WASHINGTON — Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia used his executive power on Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons, circumventing the Republican-run legislature. The action effectively overturns a Civil War-era provision in the state’s Constitution aimed, he said, at disenfranchising African-Americans. The sweeping order, in a swing state that could play a role in deciding the November presidential election, will enable all felons who have served their prison time and finished parole or probation to register to vote. Most are African-Americans, a core constituency of Democrats, Mr. McAuliffe’s political party. Amid intensifying national attention over harsh sentencing policies that have disproportionately affected African-Americans, governors and legislatures around the nation have been debating — and often fighting over — moves to restore voting rights for convicted felons. Virginia imposes especially harsh restrictions, barring felons from voting for life. In Kentucky, Gov. Matt Bevin, a newly elected Republican, recently overturned an order enacted by his Democratic predecessor that was similar to the one Mr. McAuliffe signed Friday. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed a measure to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but Democrats in the state legislature overrode him in February and an estimated 44,000 former prisoners who are on probation can now register to vote. “There’s no question that we’ve had a horrible history in voting rights as relates to African-Americans — we should remedy it,” Mr. McAuliffe said in an interview Thursday, previewing the announcement he made on the steps of Virginia’s Capitol, just yards from where President Abraham Lincoln once addressed freed slaves. “We should do it as soon as we possibly can.” Republicans in the Virginia Legislature have resisted measures to expand voting rights for convicted felons, and Mr. McAuliffe’s action, which he said was justified under an expansive legal interpretation of his executive clemency authority, provoked an immediate backlash. Virginia Republicans issued a statement Friday accusing the governor of “political opportunism” and “a transparent effort to win votes.” “Those who have paid their debts to society should be allowed full participation in society,” said the statement from the Republican party chairman, John Whitbeck. “But there are limits.” He said Mr. McAuliffe was wrong to issue a blanket restoration of rights, even to those who “committed heinous acts of violence.” The order includes those convicted of violent crimes, including murder and rape. There is no way to know how many of the newly eligible voters in Virginia will register. “My message is going to be that I have now done my part,” Mr. McAuliffe said. Nationally, an estimated 5.85 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of felony convictions, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington research organizations, which says one in five African-Americans in Virginia cannot vote. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no voting restrictions on felons; Virginia is among four – the others are Kentucky, Florida and Iowa – that have the harshest restrictions. Friday’s shift in Virginia is part of a national trend toward restoring voter rights to felons, based in part on the hope that it will aid former prisoners’ re-entry into society. Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. Previous governors in Florida and Iowa took executive action to ease their lifetime bans, but in each case, a subsequent governor restored the tough rules. Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, said Mr. McAuliffe’s decision would have lasting consequences because it will remain in effect at least until January 2018, when the governor leaves office. “This will be the single most significant action on disenfranchisement that we’ve ever seen from a governor,” Mr. Mauer said, “and it’s noteworthy that it’s coming in the middle of this term, not the day before he leaves office. So there may be some political heat but clearly he’s willing to take that on, which is quite admirable.” Myrna Pérez, director of a voting rights project at the Brennan Center, said Mr. McAuliffe’s move was particularly important because Virginia has had such restrictive laws on voting by felons. Still, she said,“Compared to the rest of the country, this is a very middle of the road policy.’’ Ms. Pérez said a number of states already had less restrictive policies than the one announced by Mr. McAuliffe. Fourteen states allow felons to vote after their prison terms are completed even while they remain on parole or probation.