RICHMOND, Va. — More than 200,000 convicted felons will be able to cast ballots in the swing state of Virginia in November under a sweeping executive order Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Friday.
The Democrat said restoring the rights of former felons to vote and run for office will help undo the state's long history of trying to prevent African-Americans from fully participating in our democracy.
"This is the essence of our democracy and any effort to dilute that fundamental principle diminishes it, folks, for all of us," McAuliffe said on the steps of Virginia's Capitol, before a crowd of more than 100 people that included many ex-felons. Left-leaning advocacy groups were there as well, handing out voter registration forms.
Republicans called the order a bald-faced political move by McAuliffe — a close friend of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton — to help his party hold onto the White House.
"I am stunned yet not at all surprised by the governor's action," House Speaker William J. Howell said in a statement. "This office has always been a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton's cabinet."
Republicans said ex-offenders who committed violent crimes, like murder, should not be allowed to vote or have other civil rights restored.
"Terry McAuliffe wants to ensure that convicted pedophiles, rapists, and domestic abusers can vote for Hillary Clinton," said Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan T. McDougle.
Kimberly Carter, 45, filled out a voter registration card shortly after watching the governor's speech. Now working as a customer service representative, she said she's been prevented from voting her entire adult life after a drug arrest in her late teens.
"You make a mistake, 20 years later you're still paying for it," she said.
Nationwide, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting because of laws disenfranchising former felons, according to The Washington-based Sentencing Project. Virginia, Iowa, Kentucky and Florida are the only states that still remove voting rights for felons for life unless a state official restores them.
Such policies make black Americans of voting age four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, disenfranchising one of every 13 African-American adults nationwide, but Virginia is even more punishing. It's among three states where more than one in five black adults have lost their voting rights, according to a recent Sentencing Project report.
Howell said Republicans are reviewing whether McAuliffe overstepped his legal authority. Republicans pointed to a letter written by a lawyer for Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine in 2010 rejecting the idea that the governor had the ability to grant blanket restoration of rights.
McAuliffe said he is certain he has such authority after consulting with legal and constitutional experts, including Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring.
Constitutional scholar A.E. Dick Howard, who presided over the most recent rewrite of the Virginia Constitution 45 years ago, said McAuliffe has broad discretion in restoring civil rights, and has now ended one of the last remaining legacies of an earlier constitutional convention that was "committed to white supremacy."
"The last ghost of the 1902 convention was buried today," Howard said.
The governor's order enables every Virginia felon to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public if they have completed their sentence and finished any supervised release, parole or probation requirements as of April 22. The administration estimates this population to include about 206,000 people.
Thereafter, the governor will act month by month to restore the rights of felons who complete all these requirements.
Previous governors in other states have granted broad restoration of voting rights in the past decade, but McAuliffe's action is the largest to date, according to the Sentencing Project.
There were 5.3 million registered voters in Virginia as of April 1, according to the Virginia State Board of Elections.
McAuliffe, who won election in 2013 by slightly more than 50,000 votes out of more than 2.2 million cast, brushed aside suggestions about political motivations, citing his longtime advocacy for restoring rights.
"This is something that's in the marrow of bones, this is something I feel very deeply about," McAuliffe said.
Before Friday's order, McAuliffe's administration had restored the rights of more than 18,000 felons — more, they said, than the past seven governors combined. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell, McAuliffe's immediate predecessor, was also a strong advocate for restoring rights.
NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks said he hopes more states follow the lead of Virginia's governor.
"History shows when people are denied the right to vote, the loss of representation weakens our neighborhoods and communities, and furthers systemic inequality," Brooks said in a statement.
Associated Press reporter Alanna Durkin Richer contributed to this report.