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Disenfranchisement News: After win in Florida, Iowa and Kentucky consider reform

January 22, 2019
After the passage of Amendment 4 in Florida, Kentucky and Iowa are now considering voting rights restoration.

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People previously disenfranchised begin registering to vote under Amendment 4

As of January 8th, Floridians who were previously denied voting rights were finally able to register to vote. As many as 1.4 million people are now eligible after voters overwhelming passed Amendment 4. The constitutional amendment automatically restored voting rights to people convicted of a felony (except those convicted of murder and felony sex offenses) upon completion of all terms of their sentence. The language of the measure was intended to be self-executing without any additional legislative rules, but it may face delays and challenges. Newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has said lawmakers should pass guiding legislation when they reconvene in March — even though the amendment appears to lay out explicitly who is automatically eligible to vote.

Desmond Meade, the President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition who spearheaded the voting rights ballot measure, was the first in line at his election office on January 8th. “One hundred and fifty years of disenfranchisement, and this moment here marks the end of a system that excludes so many people for a lifetime,” Meade said. “This is a moment for democracy.”

Iowa Gov. Reynolds calls for constitutional amendment to restore voting rights

In her annual Condition of the State address, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds distanced herself from her “predecessor and mentor,” former Gov. Terry Branstad, by calling for a constitutional amendment to reform Iowa’s rights restoration process. In 2011, Gov. Branstad reversed an executive order automating the process of restoring voting rights, bringing back a burdensome application and an individualized decision making process. “I don’t believe that voting rights should be forever stripped, and I don’t believe restoration should be in the hands of a single person,” Gov. Reynolds said. Individuals who have completed their sentences shouldn’t “have to wait for my say or any future governor’s say before they get that dignity back.”

Gov. Reynolds plans on introducing a bill with language soon. In order to amend the state’s constitution, lawmakers must pass the bill in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before it goes to the ballot for Iowans to vote. The earliest this could be completed would be in 2022.

Meanwhile the current database used for identifying and removing people with felony convictions from the voter rolls is full of “widespread inaccuracies that end up disenfranchising legal voters,” found the Des Moines Register. The Editorial Board urged Gov. Reynolds to immediately issue an executive order restoring voting rights to people who have served their sentence as she attempts to pass a constitutional amendment.

After win in Florida, national civil rights groups turn their attention to Kentucky

Last year, the Fair Elections Center successfully argued that Florida’s rights restoration process was arbitrary and unconstitutional, resulting in a federal judge ordering the state to establish more transparent criteria. The case was under appeal when Florida voters approved Amendment 4. Now the Fair Elections Center has joined the Kentucky Equal Justice Center in a suit targeting Kentucky’s rights restoration process.

With the passage of Amendment 4, Kentucky is now one of just three states — along with Iowa and Virginia — that permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions unless the governor intervenes. In Kentucky, the governor has “unconstrained power to grant or deny restoration with no rules, laws or criteria governing these determinations,” according to Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel at Fair Elections Center. “Kentucky is fighting an increasingly lonely battle to preserve a 19th century system that forces American citizens to plead for restoration of their voting rights.” The suit requests that the court order the state to create clear criteria for rights restoration.

Minnesota Secretary of State wants to expand the vote to people on probation and parole

Secretary of State Steve Simon announced several election-related proposals to increase voter turnout, including restoring voting rights to an estimated 60,000 people on felony probation and parole. Minnesota law prohibits individuals on probation and parole from voting. Simon supports automatically restoring voting rights to people as soon as they leave prison. “We have a law that says a person is safe enough to live in our community, but still too dangerous to be a voter,” Simon said. “That’s ridiculous.”

New Jersey Governor calls for restoring voting rights to people on probation and parole

Governor Phil Murphy called for expanding voting rights in his State of the State address. “Let’s open the doors to our democracy even wider,” he said. “Let’s restore voting rights for individuals on probation or parole, so we can further their reentry into society. And we further their reentry into society by allowing them to exercise the most sacred right offered by our society — the right to vote.” His speech stopped short of fully embracing legislation introduced in 2018, that would eradicate felony disenfranchisement and allow people in prison to vote.

Proposed bill would eliminate felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico

Democratic State Representative Gail Chasey recently introduced legislation that would remove all voting restrictions for people with felony convictions — including for those in prison, reports The Appeal. New Mexico law requires individuals to complete their prison, probation and/or parole sentence before their rights are restored. If House Bill 57 passed, New Mexico would join Maine and Vermont as the only states without any felony disenfranchisement restrictions.

In the past, advocacy efforts around felony disenfranchisement reforms have often pushed for incremental change rather than calling for eradication. With the Democrats winning full control of the government for the first time since 2010, now may be a “good opportunity to push the envelope and get meaningful change,” said Barron Jones, Smart Justice Coordinator at the ACLU of New Mexico.

Democrats announce major legislative package, including restoring voting rights

Congressional Democrats introduced sweeping legislation aimed at reducing the influence of money in political races and expanding voting rights. The For the People Act would give “millions of Americans the right to vote by forcing states to allow same day voter registration and banning post-release felon disenfranchisement,” Newsweek reports. The bill has been co-sponsored by over 220 Democrats, which is enough to pass the House, but will be a challenge to pass the Republican-controlled Senate. “That’s not going to go anywhere in the Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said about the legislation.

Scotland plans to restore voting rights to people serving short sentences

In order to stay in compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights, which prohibits a blanket ban on in-prison voting, the Scottish government is working to restore voting rights to people in prison serving short sentences. The government is seeking public comment on the issue and published a consultation laying out a variety of ways they may restore voting rights. The government recommends restoring voting rights to people who are serving a sentence no longer than 12 months, which would impact around 1,000 people.

“I recognise that for many people giving any prisoners the vote will be an unwelcome change and there will be concerns about the feelings of the victims of crime,” wrote Constitution Secretary Michael Russel. “In an open and democratic society, even long-held views need to be reconsidered from time to time.”

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