In 2019, Colorado, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Nevada enacted legislation to restore voting rights to felons who have been released from prison but are still under such supervision, the latest of 24 states to make similar moves since 1997. Still, a 2016 estimate by the nonprofit Sentencing Project pegged the number of Americans disenfranchised by such laws at about 6.1 million.
“When we start carving people out just because of a crime they committed that had nothing to do with voting, we start stripping them of their humanity,” said New Jersey state Rep. Shavonda Sumter, the sponsor of legislation that restored voting rights to 80,000 formerly incarcerated felons.
In announcing Nevada’s move to re-enfranchise its 77,000 released felons in July 2019, Attorney General Aaron Ford agreed that voting is a vital part of a former prisoner’s successful re-entry into the larger society. The shift to restore voting rights is part of the reaction to the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in mass incarceration that left the U.S. with the largest prison population in the world.
Every state, except Maine and Vermont, strips felons of their voting rights in prison. On the other end of the spectrum, Iowa is the only state to totally ban voting by convicted felons for life, though there is process by which they can ask the governor to restore their rights on a case-by-case basis. Other states ban felons from voting for a certain amount of time after release.
There are 20 states that ban voting by felons still on parole or probation, including Minnesota. But because of extreme discrepancies in the lengths of their probation sentences – some stretching for decades – four former state prisoners sued in October 2019 to force the state legislature to drop the ban on voting until probation is completed.
“It’s like being invisible,” said Elizer Harris, one of the four. “It doesn’t make our communities safer to relegate people to the corners.”
The 35-year-old has never had the right to vote, having been convicted as a juvenile in a trial that was later deemed rife with errors. When that sentence was reduced, he was freed in 2016 and now works for the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed the suit on behalf of him, his three co-defendants and some 50,000 Minnesota felons still on probation.
“It is an investment in helping people connect with their community,” agreed Peter Bartz-Gallagher, communications director for Secretary of State Steve Simon (D), who is the defendant in the case. “It leads to a stronger democracy and makes communities safer. This isn’t a niche issue. It affects a lot of people who are trying to rebuild their lives.”
“The vast majority of people disenfranchised live in our communities, own homes, and pay taxes,” said Sarah Shannon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia. “They’re not behind bars. So, what is it stopping us from allowing these folks from fully participating in our democracy?”
Florida voters restored voting rights to about 1.2 million convicted felons, except those convicted of murder and sex offenses, those on probation or parole and those who had not paid their fees, restitution and fines, in a November 2018 ballot measure. But it was unpopular with the state’s Republican-dominated legislature, which immediately passed a law delaying the restoration until the former convict paid all fines, fees, and restitution imposed as part of the sentence. (See PLN, October 2019, p.58.) The Florida ACLU wrote the constitutional amendment, which excluded vast numbers of convicted felons from being able to vote based on their offenses and whether they had completed the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole and paying fines and fees. HRDC opposed Amendment Four due to its exclusionary and discriminatory nature.
That law was partially voided in October 2019 by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who ruled that former felons “genuinely unable to pay” legal fines and fees could not be denied the right to vote. A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit U.S. District Court of Appeals upheld Hinkle’s ruling in February 2020. Governor Ron DeSantis has asked the full court to review the decision, and 10 states have filed briefs in support of his request.
Kentucky’s Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, signed an executive order restoring voting rights to 140,000 released nonviolent felons upon taking office in January 2019. Before that, like Iowa, Kentucky automatically disenfranchised convicted felons for life.
“They deserve to participate in our great democracy,” Beshear argued during his inauguration speech.
His executive order could be undone by his successor, so Beshear has asked the state legislature to codify it. Even so, about 100,000 Kentuckians convicted of violent crimes remain permanently barred from voting, just like every convicted felon in Iowa. Though that state’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, pledged to “remove unnecessary burdens for Iowans looking for a second chance” with a new, simpler application for restoration of voting rights in 2019, Reynolds has granted just 300 requests in her three years in office.
While many advocates cheer the changes that restored voting to some felons, others see a need to alter the focus to racial biases underlying the problem. Sentencing Project Director Nicole Porter noted that New Jersey’s prison system has the nation’s highest rate of racial disparity, incarcerating nearly 12 African Americans for every white person.
“We’re acknowledging that historically this policy is rooted in deep racism, and we’re saying, ‘OK, so let’s get rid of 70% of it’?” said Alexander Shalom of the state chapter of the ACLU.
“We will not be ‘1844 no more’ until we totally disentangle voting from our criminal justice system,” agreed Ryan Haygood, the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. (1844 is the year New Jersey excluded criminal convicts from its voting pool and restricted the franchise to white men.)
“Because we connect voting to the criminal justice system, we literally in fact link our political process with those racial disparities, with that racial discrimination,” Haygood continued. “So, the next phase is the push to connect incarcerated people with the right to vote, as they do in Maine and Vermont.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed an executive order that in March 2020 restored voting rights to released state felons at the same time he approved legislation to expunge the criminal records of those convicted of certain low-level offenses once they remain out of the criminal justice system for 10 years.
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