2006–2007 Progressive State Laws Dealing with the Voting Rights of People with Felony Convictions
Rhode Island Ballot Question 2
In November 2006, Rhode Island voters approved the first ballot referendum in the country to restore voting rights to people with felony convictions. Rhode Islanders voted to amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison. Prior to the referendum’s passage, those serving terms of probation and parole, which were often decades long under state law, were unable to vote. The amendment re-enfranchised an estimated 15,000 Rhode Islanders. The Brennan Center drafted a comprehensive companion bill to implement the constitutional amendment. That bill was passed by the Legislature in the 2006 session and became effective upon passage of the referendum. More information on the Rhode Island referendum can be found here.
Maryland SB 488
Before the Voter Registration and Protection Act, SB 488, went into effect, Maryland had one of the most complicated and restrictive restoration laws in the country. Maryland law disenfranchised anyone who had been convicted of an “infamous crime,” a term which includes all felonies and any misdemeanor that contains an element of deceit, fraud, or corruption. This rule made Maryland one of only six states that disenfranchised people convicted of misdemeanors, and one of only two that did so even if the convicted person never spent a night in jail. The prior Maryland law also created a complex three-tiered system for rights restoration. Some people got their rights back when they completed their sentence, some people only after a waiting period, and others were disenfranchised for life. In April 2007, Governor Martin O’Malley signed SB 488, drafted by the Brennan Center, which restores voting rights automatically upon completion of sentence and excludes those convicted of anything less than a felony from ever losing their voting rights. The new legislation has re-enfranchised over 50,000 Maryland residents. More information on the change in Maryland’s law can be found here.
Florida Rules of Executive Clemency
In April 2007, Governor Charlie Crist led Florida’s state clemency board in easing the state’s voting rights restoration process. Before the clemency rule change, people with felony convictions were permanently disenfranchised unless the Board individually approved the restoration of their rights. The new clemency rules will potentially re-enfranchise hundreds of thousands of Floridians by creating a streamlined procedure that would restore voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent crimes after they have completed their sentence and paid restitution. Now some Floridians with felony convictions, including many of those convicted of drug-related offenses, will automatically regain their right to vote after completion of their sentence. While the new rules represent a dramatic step forward, it should be noted that some of the provisions raise serious concerns. For example, the rules continue to require large numbers of would-be voters to navigate a slow, complicated, and expensive bureaucratic process. They also condition the right to vote on an applicant’s ability to pay restitution. More information on the movement to restore voting rights in Florida can be found here.
North Carolina HB 1743
In August 2007, North Carolina Governor Mike Easley approved an election reform bill that included multiple changes to the election code. Section 26 of the new law requires state agencies to notify individuals with felony convictions when their voting rights are restored. Under the new law, the State Board of Elections, the Department of Correction, and the Administrative Office of the Courts will jointly implement procedures that notify individuals about their right to register to vote and will provide opportunities for individuals to register to vote. In North Carolina, individuals are eligible to register to vote after they have completed their prison and parole sentences and any term of probation.
To see a summary of progressive bills and executive orders passed during the 2005–2006 legislative session, click here.