"We're not going to waste any time about arguing about the old Virginia way," McAuliffe, a Democrat, said while making the announcement at the Civil Rights Memorial on Capitol Square in Richmond.
"Let me put this in plain English: We will proceed," he said.
The move comes after Republicans and the Supreme Court of Virginia stopped his earlier wide-ranging clemency effort, an executive order issued in April that would have restored voting rights to about 200,000 felons who had served their sentences.
Republicans were upset that the order included both violent and nonviolent offenders — en masse instead of case by case — and they accused the governor of trying to add voters to the registration rolls before November's presidential election in a bid to help Hillary Clinton, a longtime friend and political ally.
Virginia GOP leaders took McAuliffe to court and defeated his plan. The court ordered the state to put the felons' names back on its list of banned voters.
"The Virginia Constitution is clear," he said. "I have the authority to restore civil rights without limitation."
He said today that he was restoring the rights of 13,000 felons after reviewing their cases individually and that he will continue to seek ways to do so for more felons, calling it "an issue of basic justice."
"I personally believe in the power of second chances," McAuliffe said.