Governor Terry McAuliffe of Virginia has paved the way for more than 200,000 convicted felons to be eligible to vote with a historic executive order announced on Friday.

McAuliffe, a Democrat, declared “a day for celebration” in remarks outside the state Capitol. The action, he said, would help overturn a history of suppressing the black vote in Virginia, where felons have been barred from voting since the civil war.

“With this action, we will send a message to these 206,000 individuals and to the world that Virginia will no longer build barriers to the ballot box, we will break them down,” McAuliffe said, adding that individuals who have completed their sentences would no longer be treated as “second-class citizens”.

Civil rights, particularly the right to vote, had been a centerpiece of McAuliffe’s 2013 gubernatorial campaign. Since assuming office in 2014, the governor has taken steps to restore voting rights to 18,000 Virginians. Under McAuliffe’s new order, felons convicted of both violent and non-violent crimes will be able to vote so long as they have carried out their sentences.

Although there has been some bipartisan consensus on criminal justice reform, voting rights has remained a wedge issue among both political parties. And with Virginia as a key battleground in the 2016 election, the politicization of McAuliffe’s action was immediately apparent.

“STUNNING: @TerryMcAuliffe literally just gave murders and rapists the right to vote in Virginia,” the Republican party of Virginia tweeted.

William J Howell, the speaker of the Virginia house of delegates, derided the action as an “unprecedented view of executive power” designed to help elect Hillary Clinton, whom McAuliffe has endorsed.

“I am not surprised by the lengths to which he is willing to go to deliver Virginia to Hillary Clinton in November,” Howell said in a statement.

“The singular purpose of Terry McAuliffe’s governorship is to elect Hillary Clinton president of the United States. The office has always been a stepping stone to a job in Hillary Clinton’s cabinet.”

Clinton has called for restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time, saying they “ought to get a second chance”. Among the Republican candidates, only the Kentucky senator Rand Paul, who is no longer in the race, backed similar measures.

On Friday, Clinton reacted to the news with a signed tweet, which read:

McAuliffe rejected the criticism, saying he had consulted legal and constitutional experts as well as Virginia’s attorney general, Mark Herring, before taking the action.

“There may be some individuals who try and demagogue this issue and will make reckless accusations,” he said.

“Our action today does not pardon or change the sentence of any man or woman affected by this grant. These individuals have completed their sentences. They have atoned for their actions. They live, work and raise families in communities all across the commonwealth, and they will continue to contribute to our communities, but they now will do it with the full rights of citizens.”

Copyright © 2016 theguardian.com. All rights reserved.

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