A Bipartisan Breakthrough on Restoring Voting Rights

The recent bipartisan momentum on criminal justice reform includes restoring voting rights to people with past criminal convictions in the states. Minnesota provides the best example.

May 13, 2015

Cross-posted on McClatchy

The past few years have seen government consumed by hyper-partisanship and paralysis. From fights over the debt ceiling to immigration to election laws, lawmakers seem more concerned with one-upping the other side than helping their constituents. Americans are rightly fed up, but they should be encouraged by recent bipartisan momentum on criminal justice reform, which includes restoring voting rights to people with past criminal convictions.

As many as 4.4 million Americans live, work and raise families in our communities but cannot vote because of a criminal conviction in their past. Currently, 35 states disenfranchise people after they are released from prison. In some of these states, that voting ban is permanent. But even where the bans are not permanent, disenfranchisement keeps people leaving prison from becoming a full part of the society they are working to rejoin. And when we keep people from voting, we deny them a second chance to fully contribute to their communities.

The effort to reform felony disenfranchisement laws brings together faith leaders, fiscal conservatives, libertarians and civil rights champions. These disparate parties understand the broad need for criminal justice reform: that we imprison too many Americans for too long, that doing so costs too much money - and that when these citizens leave prison, they often return home with little or no support. It's hard to find jobs and housing, and it's hard to become part of a community. But without those things, people are more likely to return to crime.

Restoring voting rights is a meaningful, cost-effective tool for helping people with past convictions successfully re-enter society. Giving people the right to vote sends them the message that they are citizens in a democracy - and that we expect them to live up to the responsibilities that come with that. According to a Florida government analysis, people who got their voting rights restored committed crimes at only one-third the rate of those who remained disenfranchised. The members of the emerging coalition for rights restoration believe that voting rights are an incentive to obey laws and take ownership in the success of one's community.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., observed that "(t)he largest impediment to both voting and to employment in our country is the criminal justice system." In response, he introduced a bill in February that would restore rights for those who have committed nonviolent offenses. The Koch brothers have expressed support for this kind of reform, as well. In March, Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., proposed an even broader measure.

There is even more momentum at the state level. In April, Maryland's legislature passed a bill that would restore voting rights to people who are out of prison but cannot vote. And in Minnesota, groups have been working across ideological lines to support legislation that would restore voting rights to 47,000 Minnesotans on probation and parole.

The Minnesota effort is the best example of how a bipartisan coalition can build support for voting rights restoration. Faith leaders embraced "the philosophy of giving people second chances," as put by Jason Adkins, executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Because criminal justice "is about more than just retribution," he said. "It's about reconciliation and rehabilitation."

Prosecutors and criminal justice professionals are making the case that restoring voting rights is good for public safety because it gives people a stake in their community and makes them less likely to return to prison. Civil rights groups believe voting rights can help a community be effectively represented. Advocates for personal liberty see their neighbors who pay taxes but have no say in their government. And as one Minnesota county attorney recently pointed out, simplifying the law will free up law enforcement resources from investigating allegations of improper voting that lacked merit.

With this broad base of support, several Republican lawmakers in Minnesota signed on to the bill. It passed two Senate committees, and while it did not receive a hearing in the House, it's now part of larger judiciary and election bills that passed the state Senate and are still working their way through the legislature.

Voting rights restoration brought together prosecutors and public defenders, famously liberal organizations and staunchly conservative groups, and 57 clergy leaders staking their names to "clear, moral, common-sense" legislation.

We're together in this effort because citizens in Minnesota recognize what we hope the nation will soon: That a second chance for returning citizens is an opportunity to build stronger and safer communities, and that this opportunity is bigger than partisan politics.

Myrna Perez is deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Karl Eggers is the executive director of Liberty Minnesota.

(Photo: AP)