KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Today, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe said he has restored voting rights to 13,000 felons who have completed their sentences. Back in April, the governor, who is a Democrat, had tried to restore those rights to more than 200,000 felons. But Republicans objected, took him to court and won, blocking the governor's action. Now, McAuliffe says, he is fighting back.
He told a crowd of supporters in Richmond he's committed to his promise.
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TERRY MCAULIFFE: We will proceed with the restoration of civil rights in conformity with the court ruling. But let me put this in plain English. We will proceed.
MCEVERS: NPR's Pam Fessler has been covering this issue, and she is with us now. Hey, Pam.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So first, just help us understand this story. It sounds like it's taken a few turns and could be a little bit confusing.
FESSLER: Right, exactly, especially if you're one of those felons who would like to vote.
FESSLER: Early this year, McAuliffe, he issued a blanket order that restored the voting rights to 206,000 felons who had served their time. That's similar to what a lot of states already do. But Republicans said he didn't have that authority, that he has to restore these rights one person at a time. The Virginia Supreme Court agreed with them.
So now McAuliffe says he will restore those voting rights on a case-by-case basis. And he began with the 13,000 felons who registered to vote after his first order. And he says he'll then take up all the other cases.
MCEVERS: So what are Republicans saying about this?
FESSLER: They're basically going to wait and see how this unfolds. William Howell, who's the speaker of the House of Delegates, says that they're going to review what the governor does very carefully just to make sure it's all legal. Their big complaint is that by issuing this across the board order that he did in April, that he ended up restoring rights to felons who weren't eligible.
And in fact, his initial list included the names of 132 sex offenders who are already locked - who are still locked up. Republicans also suspect McAuliffe's doing this for political reasons. He's a close friend with Hillary Clinton, and they say he's trying to help her in Virginia by giving the vote to ex-cons, many of whom are African-American and more likely to vote Democratic. McAuliffe denies this.
MCEVERS: I mean, but Virginia is a swing state. So the question is Will McAuliffe's move make a difference in the November election?
FESSLER: You know, you never know what's going to happen. But to be honest, I really don't think so. Only 13,000 felons registered so far. They now have to reregister, and you just never know who's going to actually show up and vote. And right now, polls show that Clinton has a comfortable lead over Donald Trump in the state.
So unless the race is really close, it probably is not going to make that much of a difference, at least to the outcome of the presidential race. But I think it does make a huge difference to these individuals who are involved. I spoke this afternoon with Tammie Hagen-Noey of Richmond. She was convicted in 2010 of drug possession. She was thrilled to get her rights restored earlier this year, then she was very disappointed when they were revoked by the Supreme Court of the state.
She was very discouraged. She told me it felt a little like there was a foot on my head again. Today, she's very happy.
MCEVERS: That's NPR's Pam Fessler. Thank you very much.
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