- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 19, 2016

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration urged the Virginia Supreme Court Tuesday to throw out a challenge to his restoration of voting rights for about 206,000 felons in time for the November elections, arguing that the governor acted within his power.

The question justices are weighing after Tuesday’s oral arguments is whether Virginia’s constitution allows governors to restore voting rights en masse, or requires them to consider each former offender’s case individually.

Charles Cooper, an attorney for Republican lawmakers, said the fact that no other Virginia governor has taken such a sweeping action proves state law doesn’t grant that power.

He also argued that the influence of other registered voters will be “diluted” in November if all these felons can vote as well.

“It is inherent in the right to vote, the right to cast a full vote,” Cooper said.

Virginia Solicitor General Stuart Raphael said the challenge from GOP lawmakers lacks legal standing because they have not shown harm. And just because no governor in Virginia history has used the power doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, he argued.

“If the Constitution provides the power, it doesn’t get lost from nonuse,” Raphael said.

The justices did not immediately rule after Tuesday’s hearing.

The governor’s order enabled every Virginia felon who completed their sentence and finished any supervised release, parole or probation requirements as of April 22 to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public.

At the time, the administration estimated that about 206,000 people would qualify, a number that has already grown with more restorations of rights in the months since.

Republicans want the Supreme Court to prohibit election officials from registering these felons and to cancel the more than 11,600 voter registrations made since the governor’s initial order.

They’re urging the justices to make their decision by late August so that election officials have enough time to cancel registrations before absentee ballots are distributed, if they prevail.

The governor’s order also faces a separate federal challenge from the conservative legal advocacy group Judicial Watch. McAuliffe has said that he will restore all roughly 206,000 felons’ political rights individually if he has to.

Republicans claim the governor’s order was politically calculated to help his friend Hillary Clinton win the important swing state of Virginia for the Democrats in November.

The solicitor general, urged the justices to ignore the “political aspects” and “focus on the law.”

The justices intensely quizzed both sides, particularly over whether GOP lawmakers and the other voters who brought the lawsuit had legal standing.

Justice William Mims asked the solicitor general why McAuliffe has refused to release a list of the names of the felons whose rights were restored.

“I, for one, cannot understand how a document of such importance can be shielded from the litigants and the public,” Mims said.

McAuliffe’s administration has denied public records requests for the list under a “working papers” exemption in state law. The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council said last week that the list does not qualify as a working paper, but the council cannot force the governor to produce it.

Several dozen supporters of the order rallied near the state Capitol before Tuesday’s hearing.

Kenneth Williams, who had his voting rights restored in April, urged the Republicans to look into their hearts. Williams, who was convicted of robbery nearly 40 years ago, said “everybody needs a second chance.”


Associated Press reporter Alan Suderman contributed to this report.


Follow Alanna Durkin Richer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aedurkinricher . Her work can be found at https://bigstory.ap.org/journalist/alanna-durkin-richer.

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