As the gubernatorial race in Virginia grows increasingly heated one week before Election Day, the two campaigns have lobbed attacks back and forth on one of the most controversial issues in Virginia politics: restoration of rights for convicted felons.
In early 2016, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam announced that their administration would break with state precedent to automatically restore the rights of over 200,000 individuals convicted of felonies after they had served their time.
As McAuliffe’s lieutenant governor, Northam has repeatedly claimed joint credit for this policy change. During this year’s gubernatorial campaign, Northam hasn’t shied away from the controversial decision and has repeatedly stated that he is “so proud” of his administration’s choice to restore voting and gun rights to convicted felons, including violent ones.
“That is one of our greatest accomplishments in our administration,” he said in May and added that he would “absolutely” continue that policy if elected governor.
McAuliffe’s predecessor, Republican governor Bob McDonnell, had in 2013 ended the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising all citizens with felony convictions. By executive action, McDonnell automated rights restoration for non-violent felons who had completed their sentences and paid fines and restitution as needed. The state continued to require each individual to receive a rights-restoration certificate before registering to vote.
At the start of his term, McAuliffe slowly began the process of further expanding the accelerated rights-restoration process begun by McDonnell. In 2014, he broadened the category of people who automatically regained the right to vote after completing their sentence, and he shortened the waiting period for those who had to apply for rights restoration from five to three years.
The following year, McAuliffe’s administration removed the requirement that citizens pay court costs and fees to have their voting rights restored. Finally, in April of 2016, McAuliffe issued an executive order unilaterally restoring the rights of any and all felons who had completed their sentence as of that date. He issued similar orders in both May and June.
Crucially, McAuliffe’s executive orders restored rights not only to non-violent offenders but also to sex offenders and to felons convicted of violent crimes. Virginia legislators and law-enforcement officials on both sides of the political spectrum immediately opposed this decision, and stories began to surface of egregious crimes involving sex offenders, gang members, and murderers who had their rights restored after an extremely hurried review process.
McAuliffe’s executive orders restored rights not only to non-violent offenders but also to sex offenders and to felons convicted of violent crimes.
“McAuliffe’s sweeping order to restore voting rights to ex-felons may have had another unintended consequence: giving the right to vote to at least 132 sex offenders who have finished their sentences but remain locked up because they have been deemed too dangerous to release,” a Washington Post piece from June of last year reported.
What’s more, this final expansion made it easier for convicted felons to legally obtain firearms. Before McAuliffe and Northam’s policy change, felons who wanted to regain the right to own a gun had to go through the process of having their civil rights reinstated, which involved submitting forms to be scrutinized by the secretary of the commonwealth’s staff, using the governor’s authority.
Following these executive orders, however, felons who had served their time could immediately petition the circuit court for firearm rights. Prosecutors review those petitions and can intervene if they believe a felon should continue to be barred from owning a weapon, but the process became markedly easier under McAuliffe and Northam’s policy.
According to a gun-rights-restoration attorney, after these executive orders, the process for felons to obtain a gun would go from “an eight-month process to a six-week process.” Just a few months after the McAuliffe-Northam administration’s decision, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reviewed local court records and found at least eleven cases of violent felons’ using the policy change as grounds for near-immediate restoration of their firearm rights.
It wasn’t merely right-leaning writers who took issue with the policy change. Gun-control advocate Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, wrote at the time, “We are concerned that this opens the door for potentially dangerous persons to get their firearms rights restored.”
Jason Pelt, a criminal-defense lawyer and Marine veteran, perhaps put it most memorably: “The most anti-gun governor in a long time in Virginia just made it incredibly easy for felons to get guns.”
After McAuliffe’s orders last summer, a bipartisan group of 43 prosecutors filed an amicus brief with the Virginia Supreme Court opposing the administration. “Restored felons . . . will now present themselves before circuit courts with the imprimatur of the Governor’s office as a legal advantage in their firearm rights petitions,” the brief stated, “despite the lack of any scrutiny into their particular backgrounds.”
The Virginia Supreme Court ended up determining that the administration’s policy was unconstitutional, but McAuliffe and Northam chose merely to tweak it so that it would appear to comply with the court’s ruling.
The governor’s office began to issue restoration orders on an individual basis, beginning with the 13,000 citizens who had their voter registrations cancelled after the court decision. The Secretary of the Commonwealth was authorized to recommend individuals for rights restoration on a rolling basis and to review applications for expedited restoration orders.
Critics allege that, with these workarounds, the administration was still refusing to implement a legitimate screening process to consider violent felons’ fitness to own a gun or sit on a jury. The processes currently in place neither consider the type of crime committed nor require any demonstration that a former convict is truly reformed.
Northam supporters have recently chosen to set aside policy arguments in favor of blatant fear-mongering.
Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate, has come down hard on Northam for his role in enacting this policy, launching a television ad last week to highlight some of the harmful results of restoring rights to felons in Virginia. His campaign says that, if elected, Gillespie will revert to the policy in place under the state’s last Republican governor, Bob McDonnell — a simplified and accelerated restoration of rights, but not a sweeping, indiscriminate policy like that of McAuliffe and Northam.
While the tenor of this campaign has taken a nasty turn in recent weeks, as several polls have shown the race tightening, this issue in particular has revealed a major disparity between the two campaigns. Gillespie has repeatedly made substantive critiques of Northam’s public-safety record, highlighting their differences on the restoration-of-rights issue and on Northam’s continued support of sanctuary cities, in spite of increases in violent gang membership in Virginia.
But Northam supporters have recently chosen to set aside policy arguments in favor of blatant fear-mongering. On Monday, the Latino Victory Fund released an ad showing a black pickup truck with a Confederate flag and an Ed Gillespie bumper sticker attempting to mow down minority children in the streets, closing with footage of the Charlottesville hate rally. (The ad was deleted by the PAC on Tuesday evening without explanation.)
Gillespie, meanwhile, has released his final ad of the campaign, emphasizing his positive policy vision for Virginia. When it comes to public safety, that policy vision is much more trustworthy than Northam’s.