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For former felons, the right to vote is at stake in Virginia governor race

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If an election is approaching in Virginia, 52-year-old Tammie Hagen can be found riding around Richmond on her bike, looking for ex-felons to register to vote. 

After spending a total of 16 years behind bars, Hagen returned to her home city almost two decades ago with a new perspective on the criminal justice system. Caught up in a gang and drugs as a teenager, Hagen says she paid no attention to political issues until later in life after she served her time and learned about Virginia’s draconian disenfranchisement laws.

After regaining her rights herself, Hagen decided she wanted to help others do the same.

As an employee of the nonprofit New Virginia Majority, Hagen has helped thousands of other ex-felons restore their rights and register to vote. That job became even more crucial last year when McAuliffe signed an executive order granting voting rights to roughly 200,000 former felons. But it was short lived — just a few months before the 2016 election, the state supreme court invalidated his order. Refusing to step back, McAuliffe decided to grant individual clemency to each ex-felon when he was told he couldn’t do it en masse. Since he took office, he has restored the rights of more than 168,000 Virginians.

With a race to name McAuliffe’s successor just weeks away, the voting rights of thousands more ex-felons who have yet to regain their rights remain on the line. Democrat Ralph Northam, McAuliffe’s lieutenant, has made the issue central in his campaign, saying he would continue the fight to make rights restoration easier for Virginians. But Republican Ed Gillespie, growing increasingly combative as he competes in a state Trump lost in November, released an ad this week calling McAuliffe’s policy of automatic restoration “reckless.” Northam and Gillespie are in close competition, though Trump lost the state in November.

“Ralph Northam’s policy of automatic restoration of rights for unrepentant, unreformed, violent criminals is wrong,” Gillespie says in the ad.

In September, Gillespie responded more mildly to the controversial issue of rights restoration, saying he would seek to appoint a Democratic and Republican former governor “to study the issue and propose a way to standardize the process so that it’s no longer subject to different practices by different governors,” according to the Washington Post. The 60-second TV spot released Monday is the first Gillespie has spoken strongly against McAuliffe’s process, which staunchly divided Virginia last year as the legal battle played out.

“It’s based on the same fears and same division we saw from Donald Trump,” McAuliffe said about the ad in a press call Monday. “He’s gone into the gutter one more time.”

Though voting experts say Gillespie would be unable to roll back voting rights for the tens of thousands of Virginians who have recently regained their rights, the future of disenfranchisement could be bleak if he were to win in November.

“Right now, the state of felony re-enfranchisement lies in the hands of the governor,” Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, told ThinkProgress. “The entire rights restoration process is on the line with this November election.”

“The entire rights restoration process is on the line with this November election.”

Virginia has one of the most difficult processes for felons to regain their rights, written into the state constitution after Reconstruction to specifically target African Americans and shut them out of the political process. Today, roughly one in five of the state’s African-American voters is disenfranchised.

Nguyen said that her organization is working toward a constitutional amendment, which would be a more permanent fix. But until then, it’s up to each governor to decide whether he or she will restore ex-felons’ rights. As the current system stands, the change of policy from administration to administration is confusing to people and relies on ex-felons staying educated about the policy and when it changes.

Since he took office in 2014, McAuliffe has worked to make it easier for ex-felons to regain their rights. His biggest move came last April when he signed an executive order automatically restoring rights to roughly 200,000 people. Calling it politically motivated to help McAuliffe’s ally Hillary Clinton win in November, Virginia Republicans took him to court. In July, the court overturned McAuliffe’s order. The GOP also challenged his decision to individually sign clemency grants for tens of thousands of citizens, but it was ultimately found constitutional.

“I’m probably one of Governor McAuliffe’s biggest fans because I know it was hard for him. It was a huge challenge for that office,” Hagen, who had her rights restored after the April 2016 executive order, told ThinkProgress. “It was an honor to be a part of that.”

Northam has said he is proud to have worked with McAuliffe on changing Virginia’s strict disenfranchisement policy.

“We don’t fear that Governor McAuliffe’s legacy would be in jeopardy under a Governor Ralph Northam,” Nguyen said.

Before firmly laying out his position in an ad this week, Gillespie was largely silent on the issue aside from campaign mailers that Nguyen said used “a lot of fear language” to attack the rights restoration process. His TV ad this week goes after McAuliffe’s process, but does not specify what he would change, so it’s unclear exactly how Gillespie would address voting rights.

In the past, Republican governors have supported re-enfranchising former felons after they serve their time. But last year, the Virginia GOP fought McAuliffe’s efforts at every turn, making the issue fiercely partisan.

If Gillespie were to become governor and decide to make the process more onerous, he could change the state’s policy to require a lengthy waiting period or repayment of fines before restitution. Before McAuliffe changed the process in 2015, Virginians had to pay all their fines, fees, and restitution before they were eligible to apply for restitution, which voting advocates call a modern poll tax.

“I have a lot of fear that if Ed Gillespie wins the governor [race], then we’re going to have a long road ahead,” Hagen said. “It’ll be really difficult. My understanding is that it will set us back 14 years, and it’ll take 14 years to straighten it out.”

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