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More States on Track to Restore Voting Rights to Felons, but Not Without Hurdles

by Dale Chappell

In late May 2019, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed into law a bill that granted automatic restoration of voting rights to former prisoners. State law had already allowed voting by those released from prison for first-time, non-violent felony convictions, including those still on community supervision, and the law applied to Nevada residents convicted in other states, too. The new legislation aims to clear up confusion that left many eligible voters with felony convictions convinced they could not vote.

“This is a very significant change,” said Corey Goldstone, spokesman for the Campaign Legal Center, who estimated that over 77,000 state residents would have their voting rights restored, effective in 2020. “Nevada is about to go from being one of the most complicated states in the country to navigate to being one of the most straightforward and fair.”

According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans were barred from voting during the 2016 election cycle due to a felony conviction, including around 1.3 million held in state or federal prisons. Due to higher incarceration rates, disenfranchisement disproportionately affects blacks. In 2016, over 20 percent of black voters were barred from casting ballots in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia due to felony convictions.

Nevada is now the 39th state to automatically restore voting rights to former prisoners. Earlier in 2019, Florida put into effect Amendment 4, which was supposed to restore voting rights to 1.5 million felons who had completed their sentences, not including those convicted of murder or sex offenses. 

However, in May 2019 the state’s GOP-controlled legislature approved a bill that would make payment of court-ordered fees, fines and restitution a prerequisite before Florida felons could cast ballots, imperiling the voting rights of many poor ex-prisoners. Those requirements were not included in the language of Amendment 4 as passed by voters.

By the time Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe left office in January 2019, he had signed orders restoring voting rights to most of the state’s nearly 200,000 former prisoners. Virginia law still disenfranchises felons for life, and it also prevents governors from serving consecutive terms – meaning McAuliffe had just part of his four-year term to sign the orders after the state’s GOP-controlled legislature successfully sued to stop him from issuing a blanket pardon. In response, he used an auto-pen to sign individual pardons.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order in 2018 that granted voting rights to all New York parolees, joining 14 other states and the District of Columbia. However the state’s parole website did not inform parolees they could vote until many months later.

In Minnesota, where former felons who have completed their sentences are not barred from voting, the fight for re-enfranchisement now focuses on the state’s 6,800 parolees. Supporters rallied at an annual gathering at the capitol in February 2019 to push for reforms, but the effort faces opposition from key Republican leaders. 

In June 2019, the District of Columbia Council advanced legislation that would eliminate the disenfranchisement of prisoners altogether, meaning if the bill passes, the District would join Maine and Vermont in allowing people to vote while still incarcerated. 

“When people violate the law we should hold them accountable, but we shouldn’t strip them of their rights as citizens,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine.

That is also the position taken by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the 2020 elections, who has questioned why prisoners cannot vote as they do in his home state of Vermont. Fellow presidential contender Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, supports re-enfranchisement after completion of a felony sentence but not during parole. Two other top candidates, U.S. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, have said the question of parolees voting is open for discussion. No candidate other than Sanders supports voting rights for those who are still incarcerated.

Polling by YouGov, a public opinion and data firm, has found a high level of support – 65 percent among those surveyed – for restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons after they complete their sentences. But other polls have found that a similar number – 69 percent of registered voters – oppose letting prisoners vote while incarcerated. 

Now more states, including Kentucky, Iowa and Tennessee, have considered bills to restore voting rights to felons. 

Kentucky state Senator Gerald Neal proposed legilsation that would amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to felons, except those convicted of violent crimes, sex offenses and crimes against children. A 2018 Mason-Dixon poll conducted by the League of Women Voters found that 66 percent of Kentucky voters supported restoring voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences.

Iowa lawmakers have proposed a state constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to former prisoners. But conservative lawmakers and victims’ rights groups oppose letting felons vote until after they have completed their sentences, including any community supervision, and have paid any fees, fines or restitution they owe.

“To say they have paid their debt to society when they have not [paid their restitution] is offensive to victims,” said Karl Schilling, with the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance.

Tennessee legislators introduced bills in February 2019 to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. But as in Florida and Kentucky, those convicted of murder and sex offenses, among other violent crimes, would be excluded. The bills failed to pass during the last legislative session.

The Human Rights Defense Center (HRDC), which publishes Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News, has opposed restoration of voting rights when such measures arbitrarily exclude entire categories of ex-prisoners such as murderers and sex offenders. [See: PLN, Oct. 2018, p.32; Sept. 2018, p.14].

HRDC believes that all felons, including those convicted of murder and sex offenses, should have their voting rights restored. Otherwise, efforts like Amendment 4 in Florida only serve to pit one disenfranchised group of former prisoners against another, which HRDC does not support. While restoring voting rights to felons is extremely important, HRDC wants all ex-prisoners to be able to vote with no exceptions, under the premise of “all of us or none.” 


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