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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)