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Senators Take Step Forward on Voting Rights Restoration

Bill introduced Tuesday would reaffirm voting rights for people with criminal convictions nationwide.

  • Makeda Yohannes
April 9, 2019

Mary­land Senator Ben Cardin intro­duced on Tues­day the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act (or DRA), which would restore federal voting rights to Amer­ic­ans who are not in prison but are never­the­less denied the right to vote because of prior crim­inal convic­tions. The Senate bill follows the historic passage of the For the People Act in the House of Repres­ent­at­ives last month, which included a similar provi­sion to restore voting rights.

“We are in a moment where Amer­ic­ans are demand­ing free, fair, and access­ible elec­tions,” the Bren­nan Center’s Myrna Pérez said at a Capitol Hill brief­ing mark­ing the intro­duc­tion of the bill. “We are in a moment where folks on both sides of the aisle can see that our crim­inal justice system is broken. And we are in a moment where people’s desire for progress and growth is palp­able.”

Currently, only 14 states and the District of Columbia auto­mat­ic­ally restore voting rights upon release from prison (Maine and Vermont have no crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws). Among the remain­ing states, a confus­ing patch­work of laws restricts the right to vote based on type of convic­tion, parole or proba­tion status, or payment of legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions. Confu­sion and misin­form­a­tion about these complic­ated provi­sions can lead to de facto disen­fran­chise­ment. The DRA seeks to simplify these policies, ensur­ing that any Amer­ican who is living in the community has the right to vote in federal elec­tions. The bill also provides notice to Amer­ic­ans with past convic­tions about their right to vote in federal elec­tions.

The policy of crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment is a relic of Jim Crow-era efforts to disen­fran­chise black Amer­ic­ans. Research shows that black citizens are disen­fran­chised at roughly four times the rate of all other Amer­ic­ans. Moreover, there is no crim­inal justice rationale for disen­fran­chising people after they have been released from prison. In fact, lead­ing law enforce­ment organ­iz­a­tions see voting rights as a pillar of success­ful reentry, as it encour­ages full rein­teg­ra­tion into the community. 

The DRA has been intro­duced in Congress several times since 2008. But the intro­duc­tion of the legis­la­tion in the House and Senate this year comes as national momentum support­ing voting rights has grown. In Novem­ber 2018, almost two-thirds of voters in Flor­ida approved a consti­tu­tional amend­ment auto­mat­ic­ally restor­ing the right to vote to 1.4 million citizens with felony convic­tions. Earlier this year, Repub­lican Governor Kim Reyn­olds of Iowa announced her support for rights restor­a­tion and then stream­lined the restor­a­tion process. And a Janu­ary poll in Kentucky found signi­fic­ant support for re-enfran­chising people with prior felony convic­tions. 

Earlier today, Senator Cardin tweeted: “Cast­ing a vote is one of the most funda­mental rights in a demo­cracy and gives you a say in the future of your community. Congress has a respons­ib­il­ity to ensure that right is protec­ted.” Advoc­ates, lawmakers, and every­day citizens across the coun­try have shown that they agree. The Bren­nan Center has long advoc­ated for voting rights restor­a­tion nation­ally and welcomes efforts to secure the right to vote to all citizens in the community.

(Image: Drew Angerer/Getty)