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McAuliffe: Restoring Voting Rights Lets Felons 'Feel Good About Themselves Again'

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is joined by members of the House and Senate as he announces a compromise on a set of gun bills at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 29, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said he issued an executive order to extend voting rights to felons in part to “let them feel good about themselves again.”

McAuliffe ordered Friday that 206,000 felons who had completed their sentences including parole or probation by that date immediately regain the right to register to vote, run for office, serve on a jury and serve as a notary public. He plans to repeat the order monthly to account for felons who finish their time in the future.

The governor told MSNBC that he’s been “systematically” working on the order “since the day I stepped into office when I came into office January 2014” and restored the voting rights of 18,000 felons before Friday.

“Ten yards from where I spoke is where Abraham Lincoln addressed the freed slaves 151 years ago this month,” McAuliffe said. “We have to end this process of disenfranchising folks. So, I used my authority, which I have, legal authority and the moral authority, today to restore the rights of 206,000 felons who… have served their time. They are done with probation. They are done with parole. They are free citizens.”

“They live in their communities. They work. They have families. Let’s make them full citizens of our commonwealth. Let’s let them vote again. Let’s let them feel good about themselves again. We have got to stop this disenfranchisement.”

McAuliffe said he had met with many of the thousands whose voting rights were restored before Friday’s order and noted “they’re embarrassed to tell their children” that they had lost the right to vote because of their crimes.

“On Election Day, they would go and say they were actually going to vote. They didn’t want to tell their children that they didn’t have the right to vote. You have hit it right on the head. Why should they be treated this way? They have already paid their sentence. They have already done their debt to society,” he said.

“And what I don’t understand is why these folks today have come out and attacked me for doing this. Why would you want to deny someone the right to vote? I’m not giving you your gun rights back. I’m not commuting your sentence. I’m not doing a pardon. What I’m doing is allowing you, as a free citizen, to be able to just go and vote.”

The former head of the Democratic National Committee added, “This is why I’m in elective office, to help people do morally the right thing.”

The speaker of Virginia’s state House, William J. Howell, said in a Friday statement he was “stunned yet not at all surprised” by McAuliffe’s action.

“I am stunned at his broad and unprecedented view of executive power, which directly contradicts how past governors have interpreted their clemency powers, and I am stunned at his willingness to restore the rights of the most heinous criminals without batting an eye. Yet, I am not surprised by the lengths to which he is willing to go to deliver Virginia to Hillary Clinton in November,” Howell said.

He said a policy that gives voting rights back to felons “should take into account the nature of the crimes committed, whether they have paid back their victims and the court system, and their willingness to serve as productive members of society.”

“The governor’s policy applies to criminals who have committed even the most heinous violent crimes including murder, rape, child rape, and kidnapping… Not only will these criminals have the right to vote, but they will also be serving on our juries.”

Howell accused McAuliffe of always seeing the governor’s office as “a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton’s cabinet.”

“The one-time nature of this action is proof positive of the governor’s political motivations,” he said.