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Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights To Ex-Felons

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Virginia has been one of the most restrictive states in the country giving ex-offenders the right to vote. But today, Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe moved to change that. He took executive action to allow all ex-offenders to vote once they serve their prison time and finish up parole. He expects this will affect more than 200,000 people.

Darlene Castro (ph) was at today's announcement. She says she served time for multiple felonies, including drug possession. And she says she's glad to be able to vote.

DARLENE CASTRO: It means, to me, a whole lot. I don't have any idea who I'm going to vote for. I just know I'm going to vote.

MCEVERS: Republicans have already criticized the decision and say it's politically motivated to help Democrats in the presidential election. Earlier today, I talked to Gov. McAuliffe and asked him to tell me, in his words, what motivated him.

TERRY MCAULIFFE: First of all, this is something that, you know, is in the marrow of my bones. When I ran for governor, I talked about the disenfranchisement of voters. I talked about the history that we've had. We've had a horrible history here in Virginia going back to 1901 - the poll tax, literacy tests, disenfranchisement of felons. We're one of the worst four states in America on allowing people back in with voting rights. So today, when I signed the order, 206,000 Virginians now have their voting rights back. I mean, they've served their time. They're done with the system. Why should we deny them the right to vote?

MCEVERS: It sounds like this has been something, as you said, you cared about for a long time. Why? What was it? Was it stories that you heard from people telling you about how they weren't able to vote? What did it for you?

MCAULIFFE: It was folks - when I was campaigning for governor and traveling around the commonwealth, people talking about their disenfranchisement. People make mistakes in life. You shouldn't have to live with that for the rest of your life. I believe in redemption. I'm an Irish Catholic, and I just think it's the right thing to do. But today, they get to vote. They get to run for office. They can go on jury duty. And they can become a notary - those 206,000 people

MCEVERS: You enacted this change by executive action, which means, theoretically, the next governor of Virginia could just reverse it. I mean, why not go through the state legislature on this?

MCAULIFFE: Because under our Constitution, the governor is the only one who has the authority to do these clemency activities. The legislature has no say. So you're right. The next governor could stop doing what I'm doing going forward. That Governor can't do anything about what I have done.

So the 206,000, every month now - see; it can't be automatic in the Virginia Constitution. I have to take an action. But every month now going forward, I will get the list, and then I will give them their rights back. So by the time I finish, you know, I don't know where we'll be, but maybe over 300,000. The next governor could stop that, but I think that's a great question to ask the next gubernatorial candidate. Would you continue to do this or would you stop it?

MCEVERS: I want to talk about timing, though.

MCAULIFFE: Sure.

MCEVERS: The presidential election, of course, is about six months away. You are the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. You helped run Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008. Virginia is a swing state. We spoke to William Howell. He's a Republican and speaker of the Virginia House. He called your move outrageous and transparently political. How do you respond to that?

MCAULIFFE: It's sort of sad that he would act like that - small, petty. But, you know, this is the same speaker who sent legislation to me that - a religious freedom bill that, if I had signed it, we'd be the same place as North Carolina. This is the same speaker that sent me legislation that defunded parts of Planned Parenthood. They have a right-wing extreme agenda, which is not where Virginia is. So the speaker and his actions are outrageous, clearly not mine.

MCEVERS: But I think the point that he's bringing up, right, is the timing of this, right? I mean, this is an election year. I mean, are you saying that, no, there were no election-year politics at play here?

MCAULIFFE: If he thought that politics would've played in it, to be honest with you, I would've done it before last November's elections, when the entire general assembly was up and I worked my heart and soul out to get one seat in the state Senate. So it has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with morality and what is the right thing to do.

MCEVERS: We're talking about more than 200,000 voters. Many of them are African American, as you said. That's a demographic that votes Democrat.

MCAULIFFE: If they register and go out and vote Democrat, but that's their choice. My point is I would have done this no matter how they registered or how they voted. This is not a new issue for me. I ran on this topic. From the day I sat in this chair, I have been working on restoring of the rights of felons. This is in the marrow of my bones. And that's why I did. People can make any political calculation they want. I make decisions what I think is in the best interest. This was important to me. I did it when I thought it was appropriate. I had the legal authority to do it, and I did it.

MCEVERS: That's Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia. Thanks so much for your time today.

MCAULIFFE: Thank you. Great to be with you.

MCEVERS: Virginia Republicans told us they are exploring options on how to challenge the governor's executive action. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.