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Progress on Restoring Voting Rights

Lawmakers at the state and federal levels have advanced legislation to roll back policies with racist origins that disenfranchise people with criminal convictions.

February 25, 2021

This has been a big week for the move­ment to restore voting rights to people who have been convicted of a crime. Legis­lat­ive cham­bers in New York and Wash­ing­ton State both passed bills that would auto­mat­ic­ally restore voting rights to all people with crim­inal convic­tions who are on proba­tion or parole. And a newly intro­duced U.S. Senate bill would do the same for all federal elec­tions across the coun­try.

Deny­ing the right to vote to people who are home from prison, work­ing, paying taxes, and rais­ing famil­ies serves no legit­im­ate law enforce­ment purpose, and empir­ical evid­ence suggests that people who are civically engaged are less likely to be re-arres­ted.

The passage of these bills signi­fies grow­ing national momentum on voting rights restor­a­tion. Other states includ­ing Cali­for­niaColor­adoNevada, and New Jersey have enacted reforms in the past two years.

On Wednes­day, the New York State Senate passed a bill that would auto­mat­ic­ally restore voting rights to all New York­ers upon release from prison, repeal­ing a Jim Crow-era law origin­ally inten­ded to prevent Black men from voting. The bill now heads to the New York State Assembly.

New York’s current stat­ute allows people with felony convic­tions to vote while on proba­tion, but not while on parole. This policy has its roots in the era imme­di­ately after the Civil War, when New York lawmakers sought to limit the abil­ity of Black men to vote. The law on the books today has remained unchanged in substance for 50 years and primar­ily disen­fran­chises people of color: approx­im­ately 75 percent of people who are home from prison but ineligible to vote are Black and Latino.

New York took a signi­fic­ant step forward in 2018, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo began using his pardon power to restore voting rights to people on parole. However, an exec­ut­ive action is not a perman­ent or prac­tical solu­tion. The current confus­ing process results in a weeks-long delay between an indi­vidu­al’s release from prison and when they get their voting rights restored.

Further, the policy could be reversed by a future governor at any time. The new bill would codify the right to vote for all people who have been released from prison and require offi­cials to provide notice and an oppor­tun­ity to register to all newly eligible people upon release.

This week’s success in New York is the result of years of advocacy by a broad coali­tion. However, despite recent progress on elec­tion reform in New York, this policy never advanced far in the legis­lature. Over the last few years, a broad coali­tion has pushed for the bill. The Bren­nan Center has been a leader in this coali­tion along­side people directly impacted by disen­fran­chise­ment, civil rights groups, unions, faith lead­ers, law enforce­ment, and reentry service providers.

Across the coun­try in Wash­ing­ton State, the House also passed a bill Wednes­day that would also auto­mat­ic­ally restore voting rights to all people with a crim­inal convic­tion who are not currently incar­cer­ated. If passed by the state Senate and signed by Gov. Jay Inslee, the legis­la­tion would restore voting rights to over 20,000 people.

Wash­ing­ton’s current policy, which prevents those with felony convic­tions from voting while they are on parole or proba­tion, has a strong dispro­por­tion­ate racial impact: while Black and Indi­gen­ous people make up only 6 percent of Wash­ing­ton’s popu­la­tion, they make up 16 percent of those disen­fran­chised through the current system.

This progress in Wash­ing­ton also would not have been possible without the strong coali­tion support­ing it. The Wash­ing­ton Voting Rights Restor­a­tion Coali­tion is a diverse part­ner­ship of civil rights organ­iz­a­tions, faith community groups, and directly impacted people that has pushed for this legis­la­tion for several years. The Bren­nan Center is a member of the coali­tion and has been advoc­at­ing on the issue in the state for over a decade in the courts and the legis­lature.

The bill’s lead spon­sor in the House is Rep. Tarra Simmons, who was herself a leader in the coali­tion before becom­ing the state’s first formerly incar­cer­ated person elec­ted to the legis­lature. Thanks to her efforts and those of others the bill may finally make it across the finish line this year.

If these bills are enacted, the total number of states that allow every­one not currently incar­cer­ated to vote will grow to 21. It would also leave Connecti­cut as the only state that makes a distinc­tion between proba­tion and parole for voting purposes — and legis­la­tion recently intro­duced in the Connecti­cut legis­lature could end that distinc­tion there too.

Rights restor­a­tion advoc­ates are making progress in other states, as well: new legis­la­tion has passed one cham­ber in New Mexico and a consti­tu­tional amend­ment is under consid­er­a­tion in Virginia. Thanks to exec­ut­ive orders from Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Iowa Gov. Kim Reyn­olds in 2019 and 2020, respect­ively, there are now no states that perman­ently disen­fran­chise all people with felony convic­tions.

At the federal level, on Thursday Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) intro­duced the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act, which would auto­mat­ic­ally restore the right to vote in federal elec­tions nation­wide to people with past crim­inal convic­tions who are not in prison. This meas­ure is also part of the For the People Act, a land­mark demo­cracy reform bill before the House that enjoys broad public support.

Codi­fy­ing the right to vote for all people living in our communit­ies is a good policy decision and the right thing to do. Now, lawmakers in New York, Wash­ing­ton State, and else­where must show their commit­ment to over­turn­ing racist policies and build­ing a truly inclus­ive demo­cracy.