Last night, in a decisive, bipartisan victory for voting rights, the Nevada Assembly’s Committee on Legislative Operations and Elections unanimously voted Assembly Bill 301 to the floor of the House. The bill will streamline and simplify Nevada’s unbelievably complicated patchwork of laws governing the restoration of the right to vote after a criminal conviction. The bill automatically restores voting rights to anyone who honorably completes a felony sentence of imprisonment, probation, or parole. The Brennan Center for Justice helped craft the bill, and I had the privilege of introducing the original bill at a meeting of the Assembly Committee early this month.
Disenfranchisement after criminal conviction remains the most significant barrier to voting rights. Nationally, 5.3 million American citizens are not allowed to vote because of a criminal conviction – 4 million of whom live, work, and raise families in our communities. Nevada’s disenfranchisement law is one of the most restrictive in the country (PDF). Under the current law, more than 40,000 Nevadans are unable to cast a vote due to a past criminal conviction, half of whom have completed their full sentences and are living in the community. Nearly a third of the disenfranchised individuals are African-American.
Those figures simply don’t paint the picture of a fair and fully functioning democratic system. Fortunately, the Nevada Legislature now has a wonderful opportunity to change that by passing AB 301.
Yesterday’s committee hearing was notable for its thoughtful discussion of the importance of restoring voting rights, with legislators from both sides of the aisle speaking in favor of the bill. One Assemblywoman told a personal story about a close friend with a 15-year old felony DUI conviction who has been trying, unsuccessfully, to navigate Nevada’s restoration laws ever since.
No one should have to pay a lawyer just to find out whether they have the right to have their voice heard in our democracy. Not only is this confusion unfair to voters, it places a huge burden on election administrators, who have a tough job determining if a Nevadan has the right to register and vote. AB 301 will fix this unhelpful administrative morass.
In addition, AB 301 will strengthen public safety. Law enforcement officials and criminal justice experts across the nation agree that restoring the right to vote after completion of a sentence strengthens community ties, which in turn supports reentry into the community and prevents recidivism. There is broad agreement: civic engagement, including voting, is a crucial part of enhancing public safety. AB 301 would restore voting rights to Nevadans who work and live in their communities but lack a full voice in our democracy.
At the end of yesterday’s hearing, legislators of all political stripes agreed that simplifying the law and enhancing public safety were a common sense solution to Nevada’s disenfranchisement problem. The committee members unanimously approved the bill, which now heads to the Assembly floor. We will continue to monitor AB 301 in hopes that it passes all the way through the Nevada Legislature – and strengthens our democracy in the process.