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Felons who’ve paid their debt deserve to vote, says Virginia Gov. McAuliffe

April 22, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a sweeping order Friday to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons within the state. McAuliffe described the action as an effort to reverse decades of voter repression, but state Republicans accused the governor of abusing his powers to help Hillary Clinton win a valuable swing state. McAuliffe joins Judy Woodruff for more.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a sweeping order today to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons after their release from prison.

Republicans in the commonwealth quickly accused the governor of abusing his executive power to help Democrat Hillary Clinton win a battleground state.

Governor McAuliffe joins me now from Richmond.

Governor, welcome.

Why the decision to overturn something that’s been in place in your state since the Civil War?

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE (D), Virginia: Well, let’s be honest. We have had a bad history here on voting rights in Virginia. 1901, 1902, they put in the poll tax. They put in literacy tests. And they had a horrible disenfranchisement for felons.

So, what I did today was to erase 114, 115 years of a really, really repressive tactic used to deprive people their right to vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You included convicted felons who were accused of violent crimes, murder, rape. You didn’t make any exceptions. Why not?

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: No. Why should I?

Once you have served your time, once you have paid your debt to society, the judge, jury have determined what your sentence would be, once you complete that, why should you not be back in?

When these people, even if they have committed heinous crimes, but once they have finished serving their sentence, they go back to their communities, they get jobs, they have family members. You want them, Judy — I want everybody back getting a job. I want them paying taxes. I want them feeling good about themselves.

You have paid your debt to society.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As you just heard, the Republican Party in your state is questioning why you did this blanket change in the law, in what was the law for so long, and they’re saying it’s an example of political opportunism, that you have got this election coming up, and that explains the timing of it.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: Well, Judy, let me be very clear.

If I were to do it for political purposes, I would have done it last year, before my entire 140-member of the General Assembly. As you know, you follow the news, I worked very hard to win one Senate seat to get control of the Senate. If I were to do this for political purposes, I would have done it last year.

First of all, let me be very clear. Hillary Clinton doesn’t need this. She is going to win Virginia. She is going to beat Donald Trump. So, put the politics aside. And it’s really unfortunate these Republicans always default to partisan politics.

This was, morally, the right thing to do. This was about letting people who have already served their sentence, they are done with probation, back in as full citizens of our society. That’s what we should do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor — Governor, let me ask you about another argument that’s made, and this is a conservative argument. The gentleman we spoke, his name Roger Clegg, he heads the Center for Equal Opportunity.

He said re-enfranchisement, letting people vote again, it makes sense on a case-by-case basis, once a person can show that they have actually turned over a new leaf, changed their behavior. But he said, when you grant this sort of right to vote to everybody, you are not allowing the — each individual to show whether they have respect for the law.

And he makes the point. He says, you can’t demand the right — what basically you’re doing is giving the right to vote to people who would be then determining other people’s votes, other people’s laws, which is what you do when you vote.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: Oh, Judy, that’s silly.

First of all, let me be clear. I’m restoring voting rights. I’m not giving people back gun rights. I’m not commuting anyone’s sentence. I am giving people who are now — have served — they have paid their debt to society. That debt was determined by a judge and a jury. And they said, this is the debt to pay back.

Once you have done that, I’m saying you can come back and be part of society. You can go back, and you can have a job, you can buy a home, you can do everything else. I want you feeling good about yourself and voting.

So, we have a difference of opinion. I was proud to do this today. It was morally the right thing to do. I have the full legal authority under the Constitution to do it, the legal authority. I have the moral authority. And I did it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, Governor, you have said today, I believe, that you want to encourage these individuals to register and vote. How are you going to do that?

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: Well, I think by coming on your show, and I think we’re going to see an awful lot of press that came off it today.

Judy, if you could have been with me — and we didn’t tell anybody what we were doing today. We invited a lot of folks from restoration of rights community, because I have done a lot of these events. They didn’t know. When I announced what I was doing today, the folks who came up to me and said, Governor, I haven’t voted in 20 years or 30 — there were mothers crying. There were fathers crying. There were sons and daughters crying.

It was a great feeling. I restored the rights a couple months ago of Bobby Blevins. He had not voted for 60 years. He made a mistake when he was 19 years old. He is now 79. And to see this grown man standing next to me weeping in tears when I signed the order, and he got to vote — and then he called me after he got to vote in the last election.

You know what? That’s what leadership is all about. As governor, my job is to grow an economy. My job is to make sure that everybody can enjoy a great life. What I did today was morally the right thing to do. I gave people back their voting rights, plain and simple.

You served your time, come on in, be part of the Virginia economy. Be part of our family. And you can’t do it if you treat people like second-class citizens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Governor Terry McAuliffe of the Commonwealth of Virginia, we thank you very much.

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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