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Midlands Voices: End the wait, return felons’ voting rights

January 24, 2017
In Omaha World-Herald, Nicole D. Porter and Bri McLarty Huppert from Nebraskans for Civic Reform call for restoring voting rights for Nebraskans with felony convictions.

These are our neighbors — they pay taxes, they work in our communities, they have paid their debt to society, yet they still have no voice in our democracy.

As we reflect on the 2016 election, ballots cast and candidates elected, one important piece has yet to be examined — the over 6.1 million Americans who were prohibited from making their voices heard because of laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of a felony.

In Nebraska, 17,564 voices were silenced.

Prior to 2005, Nebraskans convicted of a felony were barred from voting unless they received a full pardon. Under Legislative Bill 53, introduced that year by State Sen. DiAnna Schimek, the right to vote would have been automatically restored after the individual’s sentence was completed. However, the bill came out of committee with an amendment, tacking on a two-year wait — a political compromise.

More than a decade later, it is time to re-evaluate the prudence of making returning citizens wait an additional two years after completing their sentences before they are fully accepted back into our communities. In 2016, 7,069 Nebraskans, or 40 percent of those disenfranchised under current law, were individuals who had already completed their sentences.

These are our neighbors — they pay taxes, they work in our communities, they have paid their debt to society, yet they still have no voice in our democracy. LB 75, a bill introduced this month by State Sen. Justin Wayne, would change that. The measure would to eliminate the two-year waiting period.

Last year the Nebraska Department of Corrections awarded over $7 million in grants to community groups to reduce recidivism, investing in workplace training and educational programs across Nebraska. Voting is a pro-social behavior, and extending the right to vote to returning citizens, upon completion of their sentence, could go a long way toward engaging these individuals in their communities, reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

It is time that Nebraska invested in civic engagement as a tool for reducing recidivism.

The biggest cost of LB 75? The courage of our elected officials to do the right thing.

You can also read the full commentary in Omaha World-Herald.
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