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Warren Fiske
By Warren Fiske April 19, 2021

McAuliffe near the top in restoring ex-felon voting rights

If Your Time is short

  • There's no definitive source for determining which governor in U.S. history has restored voting rights to the most ex-felons.
  • Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, who claimed the record, restored voting rights to 173,611 ex-felons from 2016 to 2018.
  • Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has restored voting rights to 180,315 since 2019. 

Former and possibly future Gov. Terry McAuliffe says he holds the national record for restoring voting rights to people who have finished felony prison sentences. 

"I restored felons’ rights - 173,000 - more than any governor in the history of America," he said during an April 6 debate between the five candidates in the June 8 Democratic primary election for governor.

When a candidate claims a record, our ears perk up. We fact checked McAuliffe’s statement.

McAuliffe was governor from 2014 to 2018. He stepped down because Virginia is the only state that doesn’t allow its governor to serve successive terms.

McAuliffe’s numbers

On April 22, 2016, McAuliffe issued a blanket executive order enabling 206,000 Virginia people who served their prison time and finished parole or probation to register to vote. He said people who had completed their punishment deserved redemption. McAuliffe stressed that many of the eligible people were African Americans and said the ban on former felons voting was a remnant of Virginia’s racist history of keeping Black citizens from the polls.

The action was heralded by civil rights advocates. Marc Mauer, then executive director of The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, called the order "the single most significant action on disenfranchisement that we’ve ever seen from a governor."

Republican legislative leaders said McAuliffe’s action was a ruse to maximize likely Democratic voters during a presidential election year and filed suit, arguing the governor had exceeded his power. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed, ruling on a 4-3 vote that McAuliffe lacked the authority to issue the blanket order. The court said the governor could grant voting rights to ex felons only on an individual basis.

And that’s what McAuliffe did. His administration streamlined its review process, checking only if people had completed their sentences, parole or probation, then sending each a letter with an image of the governor’s signature, saying he or she could register to vote. 

By the end of his term, McAuliffe had restored voting rights to 173,166 people, according to the Secretary of Commonwealth’s office. That’s almost five times more than the total for the 19 governors who preceded him, back to 1938.

The record

Featured Fact-check

There’s no source that lists the number of felon voting rights that have been restored by governors across the nation either recently or going back in history. 

We asked McAuliffe’s campaign for proof of his claim that he’s No. 1 and were sent an April 27, 2017 article in The Washington Post reporting that McAuliffe claimed he had broken a national record held by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who restored voting rights to 155,315 people from 2007 to 2011.

We can’t verify Crist held the record, but it’s plausible because there were only a handful of states where the governor had a say in restoring voting rights. What’s clear is that McAuliffe is not the record holder today - a possibility he leaves open in his statement. His tally of 173,166 was recently exceeded by Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, who issued a blanket order in 2019 that so far has restored voting rights to 180,315 people, according to the Kentucky Department of Corrections. Beshears has not claimed the national title.

There are now only four states where the governor weighs in on restoring voting rights: Virginia, Kentucky, Iowa and Mississippi. 

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, issued an order in August 2020 automatically restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentences and were not convicted of murder or manslaughter. The order was reported to affect up to 60,000 people. Mississippi has not taken significant action. 

Forty-four states, including Florida, have set up varying systems that either automatically restore voting rights at some point after imprisonment, or leave the restoration up to entities outside the governor's office. Two states - Maine and Vermont - don’t take away voting rights, even when people are in prison.

We should finally note that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has continued McAuliffe’s work. Northam announced in March 2021 that he had restored voting rights to more than 69,000 people.

Our ruling

McAuliffe said, "I restored felons’ rights - 173,000 - more than any governor in the history of America."

McAuliffe restored the voting rights of 173,166 people when he was Virginia governor from 2014-2018. It’s plausible that he had established a record when he left office, but we can’t say so with certainty. In any case, his achievement has been lauded as groundbreaking by many civil rights advocates.

But McAuliffe’s claim needs a little clarification: He is not the current record holder. Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear has more recently restored voting rights to 180,315 people since 2019.

So, we rate McAuliffe’s statement Mostly True.

 

Our Sources

Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial debate comments, April 6, 2021. (41:04 mark).

Statement from McAuliffe’s campaign, April 8, 2021.

The Washington Post, "Va. Gov. McAuliffe says he has broken U.S. record for restoring voting rights," April 27, 2017.

Email from Kelly Thomasson, Virginia Secretary of State, April 8, 2021.

Gov. Ralph Northam, "Governor Northam Restores Civil Rights to Over 69,000 Virginians, Reforms Restoration of Rights Process," March 16, 2021.

Email from Lisa Lamb, Deputy Commissioner of Community Services and Local Facilities, Kentucky Department of Corrections, April 13, 2021.

Interview with Margaret Love, Executive Director Collateral Consequences Resource Center, April 12, 2021.

National Conference of State Legislatures, "Felon Voting Rights," accessed April 12, 2021.

The Sentencing Project, "Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer," June 27, 2019.

NPR, "Virginia Court Overturns Order That Restored Voting Rights To Felons," July 22, 2016.

The Sentencing Project, "Iowa Gov. Reynolds Ends Lifetime Ban on Voting for People with Felony Convictions," Aug. 17, 2020.

The New York Times, "Virginia Governor Restores Voting Rights to Felons," April 22, 2016.

 

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More by Warren Fiske

McAuliffe near the top in restoring ex-felon voting rights

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