In His Own Words: Governor Terry McAuliffe on Restoring the Rights of 206,000 Virginians

On the day I was inaugurated, I stood at Virginia’s state Capitol and promised to work tirelessly to ensure that all of our citizens have the opportunity for success in the new Virginia economy.

And I promised that our Commonwealth would never stand still on the road to greater equality for all our people. That obligation has driven every action that we have taken during this administration, from this year’s record investment in education to the nearly 155,000 jobs that have been created since we took office.

That same belief also drives my commitment to protect Virginians’ right to vote. Our Commonwealth cannot achieve its full potential until all men and women act on this fundamental right and participate in decisions about their children’s schools, their taxes and every other aspect of their lives.

We are all familiar with Virginia’s long history of discrimination at the ballot box, culminating in the 1902 constitution establishing a poll tax, literacy and knowledge tests, and broader restrictions on individuals with felony convictions.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated many of those barriers. However, Virginia continued to enforce one of the most restrictive laws in the country regarding the restoration of voting and civil rights for individuals who have been convicted of felonies but who complete their sentences and probation or parole.

Over the last two years, our administration has worked tirelessly to simplify the restoration process. We restored the rights of more than 18,000 Virginians, which is more than the past 7 governors combined over their full four-year terms.

We worked to reform the process by reducing the waiting period for more serious offenders from five years to three, classifying all drug-related convictions as non-violent, shortening the application for more serious offenders from 13 pages to one page, removing a requirement that individuals pay their court costs before they can have their rights restored, and ensuring that a notation will be included in an individual’s criminal record designating that his or her rights have been restored.

While I am proud of the progress we have achieved, I wasn’t satisfied to leave so many men and women in our Commonwealth barred from full citizenship. Today we restored the voting and civil rights of more than 200,000 Virginians who have served their time and completed supervised release.

This action means that these disenfranchised Virginians will immediately regain the right to register to vote, to run for office and to serve on a jury. It means that these Virginians, who have served their sentences and returned to live in our communities, will no longer be second class citizens who must jump through onerous hoops to have a voice in our society. And it means that Virginia can close a difficult chapter in our history and open a new one where, instead of building barriers to the ballot box, we work together to break them down.

Some have suggested this action was politically motivated, or that it is wrong to restore the rights of felons who have committed more serious crimes, even if they have served their sentences. I would encourage those critics to meet with some of the men and women whose rights we have restored throughout my term. Who have reentered society seeking a second chance and who have waited years, sometimes decades, to become whole members of our society again. And who have broken down in tears as I signed their restorations on “the best day of their lives.”

If we are going to build a stronger Virginia, we must open doors to participation in civic life for people who return to society seeking a second chance. We must welcome them back and offer the opportunity to build a better life by taking an active role in our democracy. I believe it is time to cast off Virginia’s troubling history of injustice and embrace an honest, clean process for restoring the rights of these men and women.