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Pitts: McAuliffe is less than forthright on felon vote

The Republicans are probably right.

Last week, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, issued an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 ex-offenders. The sweeping order applies to those who have completed their sentences and any probation or parole.

The GOP was unimpressed. William Howell, speaker of the Virginia House, pronounced himself “stunned” by the governor’s action, which he said was designed to deliver November votes to presumed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

“It is hard to describe how transparent the governor’s motives are,” said Howell in a written statement. “The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States.”

McAuliffe denied all this, but there is every reason to believe he was less than forthright in so doing. The mass incarceration phenomenon is no less real in Virginia than elsewhere in the country, so a disproportionate number of those getting their ballots back will be African American, a group that reliably votes Democratic.

Add to that the fact that McAuliffe is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee who headed up Clinton’s 2008 campaign — and that he is a Clinton friend and fundraiser. With all that in mind, it would be naive to believe he did what he did without thought of the political benefits.

On the other hand, there are also political benefits to denying those ex-felons the right to vote — except that those benefits accrue to the GOP. Howell’s statement is unsurprisingly silent on that point.

Pot, meet kettle.

We find ourselves, then, caught between dueling political agendas. And if you didn’t know better, you might not realize something fundamental was at stake, something far more important than the desire of Democrats and the GOP to headlock one another in the eternal mud-wrestling match that is politics.

Meaning, of course, the ballot. Without it, you are mute in the great chorus of democracy. You have no way to hold accountable the people who purport to lead you.

Too many Republicans, albeit not all, are appallingly OK with that where ex-felons are concerned. Note Howell’s preferred plan for the restoration of voting rights: Ex-felons, he said piously, “deserve the opportunity to demonstrate they once again deserve their civil rights.”

Beg pardon, but civil rights, by definition, are rights that come with citizenship. They are automatic — you don’t have to “deserve” them — and they should be abridged or denied only upon serious deliberation and only in extreme cases. Getting busted for selling marijuana, or even for committing armed robbery, does not fill the bill.

One is pleased, then, by McAuliffe’s executive order. But that pleasure is tempered by the conviction that he has done the right thing for the wrong reason.

Granted, the right thing done for the wrong reason is still the right thing. But it also suggests a lack of guiding principles, a willingness to flow like water, shaping oneself to the circumstances of the moment. Who can say where McAuliffe’s loyalties would lie if restoring voting rights carried no political benefit or, for that matter, if it exacted a political cost?

So as much as one is tempted to take the victory and run, one can’t. As much as one is gratified to see more than 200,000 returning citizens get the chance to re-integrate into society, one is also chagrined by superfluous evidence of political cynicism and opportunism. This is no profile in courage. This is an act of expedience for which, unfortunately, the only proper response is anatomically impossible.

You cannot applaud while holding your nose.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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