Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
Florida House bill would automatically restore voting rights after three years
Rep. Al Jacquet, D-Lantana, has filed a House bill to amend the state Constitution and automatically restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions three years after they have completed their sentence. If passed, the constitutional amendment would be placed on the next general election ballot.
Florida is one of only four states in the nation – along with Virginia, Iowa and Kentucky – to disenfranchise all individuals with felony convictions for life. The only means of regaining voting rights in these states is through action by a governor or pardons board. In Florida, the governor and cabinet meet only four times a year to hear petitions for rights restoration.
A proposed constitutional amendment by Floridians for a Fair Democracy goes further than Rep. Jacquet’s bill, and calls for automatic restoration of voting rights upon full completion of an individual’s sentence. The Florida Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on the group’s ballot proposal in March.
Virginia Senate bill to limit governor’s power to restore voting rights blocked in the House
A House of Delegates committee recently blocked a proposal by Sen. Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City, which would have limited the governor’s ability to restore voting rights to persons with a felony conviction. Sen. Norment’s bill, which narrowly passed the Senate, would have allowed the legislature to set criteria for felony offenses that would be eligible for rights restoration. In addition, it would have required individuals to pay all fines and fees associated with their convictions before having their rights restored, and would have imposed a five-year waiting period for people convicted of violent offenses.
Sen. Norment’s proposal came in response to Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to use his executive power to restore voting rights to an estimated 200,000 Virginians en masse last year. Sen. Norment said that his proposal was trying to create a consistent process for restoring voting rights. However, Senate Democrats argued that the legislation was comparable to previous racist attempts during the early 20th century, when the state used felony disenfranchisement laws as an overt way to stop blacks from voting.
68% increase in disenfranchised Kentuckians since 2006
Kentucky has the third highest felony disenfranchisement rate in the country, with one of every 11 adults disenfranchised. And the state has the highest rate for African Americans (26.2%—more than triple the national rate), with one in four disenfranchised. More than 92% of Kentucky’s disenfranchised population is not incarcerated, including 78% who have fully completed their sentence.
In an op-ed in the Lexington Herald Leader, Terry Naydan and Nita Smith, co-presidents of LWV of Kentucky, argue that restoring voting rights should be an important part of any state reentry plan. “Restoration of voting rights is another way to help these citizens become contributing members of their communities and to reduce recidivism, thus saving the state the high cost of additional convictions and incarceration.” They also recommended passing legislation to allow a ballot proposal on automatic rights restoration after completion of sentence, and reducing or waiving the $500 application fee for expungement of felony records.
Mississippi bill to study changes to state disenfranchisement laws unanimously passes House but dies in Senate
A bill to establish a special committee to study the possibility of allowing people with nonviolent felony convictions to vote died in the Senate. Sen. Elections Chairwoman Sally Doty, R-Brookhaven, declined to take up the House bill and said that the issue is not a priority for the Election Committee this year. The House had recently passed the bill 120-0. The committee would have consisted of lawmakers, representatives from the secretary of state’s office and the department of corrections, and a prosecutor and a public defender.
Mississippi has the second highest disenfranchisement rate in the nation. Currently, individuals convicted of any of the 22 crimes listed on the secretary of state’s website (some violent and some non-violent) are permanently stripped of their voting rights. Mississippians may only regain their right to vote by executive pardon, or by convincing a state legislator to personally author a bill restoring their individual voting rights. That bill then has to pass both houses of the Mississippi Legislature by a two-thirds vote. Since 2013, just eight people have had their rights restored compared to 35 people in 2004 alone. One of the authors of the House bill, Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, said, “it is not workable to go to the Legislature for each person wanting to get voting rights restored.”
Rep. Reynolds also said there is a precedent for a mass restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions in Mississippi. In 1948, Mississippi passed legislation to restore voting rights for World War I and World War II veterans with felony convictions. “We never did that for the forgotten war, Korea, the Vietnam War, and we have not done that for the young people who served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Rep. Reynolds.
Half of Nebraska counties give misinformation on how people regain voting rights
In 2005, Nebraska reduced its indefinite ban on post-sentence voting to a two-year waiting period. Recent legislation introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne, D-Omaha, aims to remove this waiting period and eliminate the unnecessary confusion around voting rights restoration. A 2016 study by the ACLU of Nebraska—conducted over a decade after the 2005 law changed— found that election officials in 47 of Nebraska’s 93 counties gave misinformation about voting rights for people with felony convictions.
In an op-ed in the Lincoln Journal Star, former Nebraska lawmaker DiAnna Schimek highlights the disproportionate impact felony disenfranchisement laws have on low-income communities and people of color, and how confusion around voting rights restoration impacts which communities have a voice in the government. “As a matter of principle, a democratic society should never condition the ability to vote on a person’s income or race,” said Schimek. “Eliminating the two-year waiting period will help our state uphold this essential principle.”