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Restoring felon voting rights critical to House Democrats' first bill

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives will make strengthening democratic institutions the focus of its first bill in 2019. Legislation to protect voters’ rights will be first on the agenda when Democrats take over the House next year.

HR 1, as it’s now being called, is rather comprehensive: It would establish automatic voter registration, restore the values of the gutted Voting Rights Act and mitigate the effects of gerrymandering by stripping states of their power to draw districts.

But the proposed HR 1 omits one essential part of any voting rights effort: re-enfranchising people who’ve lost the right to vote because of felony convictions. HR 1 needs to include a provision that restores voting rights in federal elections to the 4.7 million Americans who have lost them.

Even though Article 1, Section 4 of the Constitution gives Congress ultimate supervisory power over federal elections, the federal government has always passed that right down to the states. The result of that abdication is a landscape of voting rights for people with criminal records that is an ever-changing patchwork across states, one that ultimately suppresses the vote of people with restored rights because they don’t know what their rights are.

Right now, two states — Maine and Vermont — never take anyone’s rights. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia strip people of voting rights only while incarcerated; they receive automatic restoration upon release. Twenty-two more take rights of people who are incarcerated and serve some type of community supervision, like probation or parole, but restore them once sentences are completed. Eleven more require an additional waiting period or action.

But this is changing all of the time. The 22 states that restore rights after parole or probation used to be 21 states before Florida’s Amendment 4 was approved on Nov. 8th, and 20 states before Virginia’s governor restored rights to 156,000 people in 2017.

The 15 states that automatically restore voting rights when someone leaves custody used to be 14 before April of this year, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo re-enfranchsied 35,000 paroles.

Even Iowa, Kentucky and Florida, the final frontier in voting rights — they are or were the last states to permanently disenfranchise felons — aren’t stable in their disenfranchisement. In Iowa, felons could vote until 2011, when Gov. Terry Branstad took office and yanked those rights away.

The same thing happened in Kentucky where what rights former Gov. Steve Beshear gaveth, current Gov. Matt Bevin tooketh away in 2015. Mr. Bevin’s running again in 2019, but if he doesn’t win, there’s no reason why his successor can’t reverse his executive order.

There was a similar flip-flop between Florida’s former Gov. Charlie Crist and Gov. Rick Scott in 2011, well before 1.4 million people had their rights restored through a ballot measure on Election Day.

The differences in rights between states and the changes within them suppresses activity by eligible voters. A study published in Probation Journal revealed that many returning citizens don’t understand that they can vote, even in states that don’t restrict their rights. This is the likely explanation for why only between 12 and 16% percent of people with restored rights actually cast ballots.

One universal right to vote for felons would erase the confusion and increase voter participation. Ideally, this could arise if every state followed Maine and Vermont’s example and refused to disenfranchise anyone for any reason. Short of that, Congress can create this right in federal elections.

This isn’t a new idea. The Democracy Restoration Act sought to restore voting rights in federal elections to people who had been released from prison but are still denied the right to vote. The bill was first introduced by former Representative John Conyers, Jr., a Democrat from Michigan, and Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin in 2015, and again by New York Representative Jerry Nadler this past July. In Republican-controlled Congresses, the bill didn’t get much traction.

But if the voting power that felons — including the 1.4 million potential new voters in Florida — already have throughout the country was marshaled together and they were educated about their power to hold senators and representatives accountable for their support for HR 1, it might have a chance — assuming restored voting rights is built into the bill. This group, like any other, will only respond to calls to engage politically if there's something in it for them.

Chandra Bozelko (bozelko@prison-diaries.com) is a nationally-syndicated columnist with Creators; her blog, Prison Diaries, won a Webby Award this year. Ryan Lo is the founder of Unlabeled Digital Media and he is a 2016 Senior Soros Justice Fellow.

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