RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia Republicans moved Wednesday to try to block Gov. Terry McAuliffe's latest effort to restore voting rights to thousands of felons, arguing that McAuliffe is defying a court order that said voting rights cannot be restored en masse.
Top GOP lawmakers want the Virginia Supreme Court to hold the Democratic governor in contempt for violating its July court decision that invalidated a sweeping executive order restoring the rights of more than 200,000 felons who completed their sentences.
McAuliffe recently began restoring felons' voting rights again under a new process, but Republicans say McAuliffe is still running afoul of the state's Constitution.
"There is no practical difference between his latest action and his first set of executive orders," Republican House Speaker Bill Howell said in a statement. "The seriousness of Gov. McAuliffe's flagrant and repeated violation of the Constitution requires us to take action. The governor will undoubtedly continue to falsely demagogue our motivations, but we cannot stand idly by," he said.
McAuliffe dismissed the latest GOP effort as a partisan attack, saying his administration has fully complied with the court ruling. He said Republicans are more concerned about what impact the new voters could have on Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign "than they are with the dignity of the people whom they continue to drag through the mud with their political lawsuits and ugly attacks."
"We will oppose this latest partisan action vigorously and overcome any and every obstacle Republicans may erect to our efforts to bring this dark chapter in our Commonwealth's history to a close," McAuliffe said.
Republicans have accused McAuliffe of trying to add more Democrats to the voter rollers to help presidential candidate Hillary Clinton win the critical swing state in November. Nearly one-third of the 13,000 felons who had registered to vote before their rights were stripped away again last month live in a precinct where President Barack Obama received more than 75 percent of the vote in 2012, according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project.
McAuliffe announced Friday that his administration has again restored the voting rights of those 13,000 felons. His administration processed each felon's paperwork individually to comply with the ruling, he said. He also pledged to individually restore the rights of other felons who meet the requirements, giving priority to those who request it, he said. The orders also allow the felons to serve on a jury, run for public office and become a notary public.
Republicans say simply printing individual restoration orders doesn't go far enough. They argue that the governor cannot restore someone's rights unless that person has first applied to get his or her rights back.
"`The practical effect' of Gov. McAuliffe's August 22 decision to issue over 200,000 individual restoration orders is precisely the same: his newly announced process will effectively suspend Virginia's general constitutional prohibition against felon voting for over 200,000 felons," attorneys for Republicans write in their motion.
Republicans are asking the court to demand that McAuliffe explain why he should not be held in contempt. Republicans say the court could also enter an order prohibiting election officials from registering voters whose rights have been restored under the governor's new process.