Today, Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, announced the introduction of the Democracy Restoration Act of 2018, which will clarify and, in some cases, expand the voting rights of people with felony convictions, a critical next step in the criminal justice reform. The legislation, introduced with more than 30 Members including Representatives Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Hank Johnson (D-GA), Steve Cohen (D-TN), and Jamie Raskin (D-MD), is part of ongoing efforts at the federal and state level to help reintegrate ex-offenders into their communities, restoring their full participation in civic life.
“The United States remains one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying citizens convicted of crimes the right to vote,” said Ranking Member Nadler. “The denial of voting rights to ex-offenders is a vestige from a time when suffrage was denied to whole classes of our population based on race, gender, religion, national origin and property. Our nation not only fails people with felony convictions by denying them the right to vote, we fail the rest of our society that has struggled throughout American history to ensure that our citizenry be part of legitimate and inclusive elections. It is long overdue that these restrictions be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
Due to differences in state laws and rates of criminal punishment, states vary widely in the practice of disenfranchisement, demonstrating a critical need for uniform standards at the federal level. An estimated 6.1 million citizens are ineligible to vote in federal elections due to their status as ex-offenders. More than four and a half million of these disqualified voters are not in prison, but are on probation, parole, or have completed their sentence.
The Democracy Restoration Act is a narrowly crafted effort to resolve ambiguities in our voting system and expand voting rights for people with felony convictions, while protecting state prerogatives to generally establish voting qualifications. In the past, voting restoration legislation has been supported by a broad coalition of groups interested in voting and civil rights, including the NAACP, ACLU, Human Rights Watch, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, among others. This coalition has expanded to include many law enforcement groups who recognize that allowing people to vote after release from prison helps rebuild ties to the community that motivate law-abiding behavior. These groups include the American Probation and Parole Association, the Association of Paroling Authorities International, and the National Black Police Association, among others.
A copy of the Democracy Restoration Act of 2018 can be found here.
Proponents of ex-offender disenfranchisement have offered few justifications for continuing the practice. In fact, the strongest empirical research suggests that prohibitions on the right to vote undermine both our voting system and the fundamental rights of people with felony convictions. A series of studies make clear that civic engagement is pivotal in the transition from incarceration and discouraging repeat offenses. Disenfranchisement laws only serve to isolate and alienate ex-offenders, creating additional obstacles in their attempt to successfully put the past behind them by fully reintegrating into society. But that is only half the story.
The current patchwork of state laws has created widespread confusion among election officials throughout the country and served as the justification for flawed voter purges. For example, although people with misdemeanor convictions never lose the right to vote in Ohio, in 2008, 30 percent of election officials in the state responded incorrectly or expressed uncertainty about whether individuals with misdemeanor convictions could vote. A similar survey by the Nebraska ACLU in advance of the 2016 general election determined that about half of state election officials gave out the wrong information about former felons voting rights. Given the general confusion by election officials on restoration of voting rights, many ex-offenders are hesitant to even attempt registration, depriving eligible voters of their rights to be full participants in civic life.
Since the initial introduction of this legislation, the Sentencing Project reports 27 states have amended felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility. These reforms have resulted in an estimated more than 800,000 citizens regaining their voting rights. Yet, despite these reforms, the overall rate of ex-offender disenfranchisement has not abated and continues to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Many of the state reforms still rely on lengthy waiting periods or clemency and several feature burdensome procedural hurdles that have proven difficult to navigate for persons seeking to restore their voting rights. As a result, approximately 50 percent of the entire disenfranchised population is clustered in 12 states, with Florida alone accounting for 48 percent of the post-sentence population.