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June 4, 2021

Encouraging examples of democracy expanding for those previously disenfranchised

I just saw this recent Stateline piece headlined "More States Expand the Ballot to Previously Incarcerated," which provides some positivity to close out this week.  Here are excerpts:

Building off two decades of advocacy work and the recent national push to overhaul the criminal justice system, 20 states now restore voting rights for people with felony convictions when they leave prison.  Energy around the restoration of voting rights continues to swell. But there remains sustained opposition, as critics insist people with felony convictions pay all fines and serve the entirety of their parole before regaining the right to vote.

New York and Washington enacted laws in the past two months that automatically restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they are released from prison. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, signed an executive order in March that restored voting rights for more than 69,000 eligible Virginians.  A proposed amendment to the Virginia state constitution could make that change permanent.  The legislature passed the amendment this session.  Lawmakers will have to pass it again in 2022 before it heads to voters for final approval.

A holdover from the 19th century, 5.2 million Americans are disenfranchised because of their felony convictions — some 2.3% of the nation’s voting age population, according to a 2020 count by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that lobbies for the restoration of voting rights.  In 11 states, people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely, sometimes having to wait for a gubernatorial pardon, or navigate a gauntlet of waiting periods, fees and petitions.

Some critics of these new laws say people with felony convictions should serve the entirety of their sentences, including parole, probation and fines, before being able to cast a ballot again.  However, proponents of voting rights restoration after prison think accessing the ballot connects people with society, giving them ownership over their lives and the community, and possibly dissuading them from committing crimes in the future....

Certain states are going beyond reinstating voting rights for those with felony convictions once they leave prison. Some are scrapping laws that disenfranchise those voters in the first place.  In Oregon, lawmakers are debating measures that would amend a law that strips voting rights from people with felony convictions.  The District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont do not disenfranchise those with felony convictions even while in prison. Illinois also is debating legislation that would repeal the state’s ban on voting by incarcerated people.

The restoration of voting rights has drawn some bipartisan support. Last year, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed an executive order giving the right to vote to thousands of residents with felony convictions after completing parole or probation.  The legislature is working to amend the state’s constitution to make this change permanent.

In Kentucky, Republican state Rep. Jason Nemes is one of the co-sponsors of bipartisan legislation that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights for people with certain felony convictions after they complete their imprisonment, probation or parole.  Denying them the right to vote, he said, can make people attempting to rejoin society feel ostracized.  “When someone has committed an offense against the community and they served their time, we want that person back in the community,” he told Stateline.  “Now it’s time for you to take a sense of ownership and responsibility for your neighbors.” If the measure gets legislative approval, the proposed amendment will go before voters on the November 2022 ballot.

This proposal comes more than a year after Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order in 2019 that restored voting rights to an estimated 140,000 Kentuckians with nonviolent felony convictions who have completed their sentences.  A Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy poll released in February shows more than two-thirds of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights for people who finished their sentences.

But there is still opposition by many lawmakers around the country, most of them Republican, who say that some crimes are so heinous they merit lasting punishment such as disenfranchisement.  Others say that people with felony convictions should complete probation and parole periods, along with paying all fines, before they get their rights restored.  “Beyond voting rights, first comes responsibility,” said Washington state Rep. Jenny Graham, a Republican, during floor debate in February.  “When somebody makes a decision to harm or kill another individual, there is accountability that is due.”

After Florida voters passed a ballot initiative restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they leave prison, Republican lawmakers, led by Gov. Ron DeSantis, rolled the measure partially back, insisting that people pay all fines before getting their rights returned.  This caused widespread confusion for many people who were formerly incarcerated, leaving them unsure whether they could vote in November’s presidential election. 

The Florida confusion illustrated the ongoing hurdles for voting rights activists: Once these laws are enacted, hurdles remain.  For example, informing recently released residents about their voting rights often falls on resource-limited community organizations, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project....

Lawmakers in Maryland this year introduced legislation that would require prison staff to provide voter registration information upon residents’ release from prison. It passed both houses of the Maryland legislature, though the chambers must now reconcile differences between their bills.  Such requirements are part of New York’s recent law. Local jails in Cook County, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; and Philadelphia have implemented programs in recent years to inform incarcerated people of their voting rights and encourage voter registration, Porter said.

June 4, 2021 at 11:27 AM | Permalink


Relevant quote from a book review:

"In sum, Until Justice Be Done is a wonderful addition to the civil rights literature. Professor Masur’s book also suggests that local and state government is a better forum for egalitarian reform, which is a timely lesson in a period of partisan deadlock in Washington DC."


Posted by: Joe | Jun 4, 2021 11:40:16 AM

Reforming voter registration laws can only be done at the state level (unless Congress wants to enact a new and far-reaching Federal voter registration system), because throughout the 245 year history of the United States, all voter registration has been done at the state level. This is an interesting historical phenomenon, because there is no prohibition in Federal law against former felons voting in Federal elections (Congress, Vice President and President). For that matter, former felons can also run for Federal offices too. The Republicans in the Kentucky Senate, especially Senator Damon Thayer (R. Georgetown) have long prevented the Legislature from considering or passing a Bill that would permit Kentucky voters to amend the Constitution, to automatically restore voting rights to former felons. For 10 years, these Bills passed the House of Representatives by votes of (about) 83 to 17, but then the Bill would die in the Senate, not even getting a committee hearing or committee vote. Current Gov. Andy Beshear's father signed an Executive Order permitting the automatic restoration of voting rights to non-violent felons, but the new Republican Gov., Matt Bevin, rescinded the Executive Order soon after being inaugurated. It is widely believed now that if a Republican candidate defeats current Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear (son of Steve!), he would again rescind the Executive Order automatically restoring the voting rights of non-violent felons. This is so despite the fact that more than 23 of Kentuckians surveyed favor the restoration of voting rights to former felons. A few years ago, Senator Thayer proposed that former felons should have to undergo a 5-year waiting period after they complete their sentences, before they can register to vote. In a crowded committee room, the head of the Kentucky NAACP told Senator Thayer: "And for those same 5 years they can't vote, they won't have to pay taxes either, right?" I thought we resolved this issue of taxation without representation when we fought the revolutionary war against the British." In Kentucky, 26% of the black population has a felon conviction (33% of black men). This is little more than a 21st century "Jim Crow Law", if the Republicans here have their way.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 5, 2021 3:02:13 PM

Should be, "more than 2/3 of Kentuckians surveyed" above.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 5, 2021 3:04:00 PM

The Voting Rights Act was basically a federal reform of voting registration.

The racial effects of felony disenfranchisement over the years specifically shows the overlap here. As addressed in a previous thread, this offers a possible route to limit a Supreme Court ruling upholding felony disenfranchisement, but Roberts has been against liberalizing voting since the 1980s.

The constitutionality of a proposed federal law is defended here but ultimately the reach of federal power over qualifications of voting will be left to the Barrett Court


Posted by: Joe | Jun 5, 2021 4:39:41 PM

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