Restoring rights for felons a rare bipartisan voting change

More than 4.6 million people are disenfranchised in the United States because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project

T.J. King
T.J. King, who is an outreach specialist with the Nebraska AIDS Project, is photographed in their office on Thursday, February 23, 2023, in Lincoln, Nebraska.Rebecca S. Gratz (AP)

TJ King had candidates and causes to support, but couldn’t vote in Nebraska’s last election. An outreach specialist with the Nebraska AIDS Project, King came off probation in August after serving time for drug and theft convictions. In many states, he could have voted in the November general election, but Nebraska requires a two-year wait after the completion of a felony sentence before someone can register.

King’s first chance to vote will be in the 2024 presidential election season – unless a legislative proposal introduced in January that would remove the two-year requirement passes and becomes law. That likely would change the timeline for the restoration of voting rights for King and thousands of other Nebraskans.

Voting, King said in an interview, gives “a little bit of your strength back and a little bit of your voice back. Being able to vote, being able to have a say in what happens in your society, in your state, is extremely important.”

Restoring the voting rights of former felons drew national attention after Florida lawmakers weakened a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new election police unit championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrested 20 former felons. Several of them said they were confused by the arrests because they had been allowed to register to vote.

Attempts like those to discourage ex-felons from voting appear to be an outlier among the states, even as some Republican-led states continue to restrict voting access in other ways.

At least 14 states have introduced proposals this year focused on restoration of voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. An Oregon proposal would allow felons to vote while incarcerated. A Tennessee bill would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is completed, except for a small group of crimes. Texas legislation would restore voting rights to those on probation or parole.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed a bill restoring voting rights to convicted felons as soon as they get out of prison. A bill moving through the New Mexico Legislature would do the same.

“Restoring voting rights really is an issue where we’ve seen bipartisan momentum,” said Patrick Berry, counsel for the Democracy program at the Brennan Center.

More than 4.6 million people are disenfranchised in the United States because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, which studies the issue and advocates for restoration of voting rights for former felons.

Laws vary by state, based on pardon requirements, payment of fines, fees and child support, and when a sentence (including probation and parole) is considered complete. The impacts fall disproportionately on people of color, especially Black citizens, who account for one-third of the total disenfranchised population while making up about 12% of the overall population.

In Nebraska, nearly 18,000 people are unable to vote because of felony convictions, said the Sentencing Project’s director of advocacy, Nicole Porter. That includes 7,072 who fall under the two-year wait requirement and are currently unable to cast a ballot. The rest have not completed their full sentences.

Steve Smith of Civic Nebraska, part of a large coalition of groups supporting the measure, said the wait creates a group of taxpayers who can’t choose their representatives.

“You’re civically dead and you can’t vote for the people who are levying those taxes,” he said.

The bill that would eliminate the wait would alter a 2005 law. Before then, felonies in Nebraska brought a lifetime voting ban in most cases.

At the time Nebraska was in step with other states. Now, while a few states require wait times for specific offenses or define completion of a sentence as including things such as fines and restitution, Nebraska is alone in requiring a general waiting period beyond imprisonment and release from parole or probation, said Margaret Love, co-founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which keeps a 50-state database on restoration of rights.

The bill’s author, Democratic state Sen. Justin Wayne, said he was going door to door in his first election in 2016 and was told by would-be constituents that they could not vote. Much of the reason was confusion over the law’s waiting period, he said.

He has introduced bills multiple times to do away with the wait period, coming close to success in 2017 when a bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Wayne, who represents parts of Omaha with strong minority populations, said reconnecting people to the voting process is integral to successful reentry. His bill advanced this past week from a committee to the full Legislature.

“When people get out of our system, they’ve got to feel engaged in their community, and the number one way for a person to feel engaged in their community is to be able to vote for the leadership of that community,” he said.

Kathy Wilcot, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, was the lone dissenter from among the nearly 20 witnesses who spoke on Wayne’s bill. Wilcot stressed she was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the university.

“I do think that hopefully the waiting period reinforces the fact that voting is something very special, and hopefully that will be part of the things that an individual would consider if they’re tempted to break the law again,” she said.

Three of the witnesses with criminal records who spoke in favor of the legislation said in later interviews the waiting period is not a deterrent to future crime, but rather a barrier for those who have served their sentences.

King, 51, fought addiction for years and spent five years in prison after being convicted of possessing the party drug Ecstasy and theft by deception, ending probation last August.

King works in the HIV/AIDS field and volunteers at various organizations, but said voting is still the most direct way to be involved and became tearful when talking about being unable to vote.

“I felt so hopeless and helpless not being able to have my voice heard in this last election,” King said. “There are a lot of things that were on the ballot here in Nebraska that hit home with a lot of things that I advocate for.”

Demetrius Gatson is among the more than 10,000 people in Nebraska who has no right to vote because they haven’t completed their sentences. Because of her probation, she will have to wait until 2030 to vote.

Since her 2018 release, she has obtained graduate degrees and served in a variety of volunteer roles. Now 48, Gatson has set up her own nonprofit and is executive director of Q.U.E.E.N.S Butterfly House, a safe house for women trying to reenter society.

For the people she works with, being able to register to vote provides a sense of acceptance, especially when there are so many barriers on where they can live, jobs they can work and who they can associate with, she said.

Gatson said there are critical issues she cares about, including education and criminal justice, but said, “I don’t have a say in anything that goes on in my country because I’m a felon.”

Steven Scott, 33, was paroled in 2015 after serving more than four years on assault and other charges. After his release, he was rejected repeatedly for apartments, got a job only because his boss knew him and had his pursuit of an advanced degree derailed after his record came to light.

He is now married with two small children and owns his own business, a physical rehabilitation and athletic coaching center. He also has regained voting rights and cast ballots for Republican candidates in his first elections, including 2020. He sees the two-year wait period as one link in a long chain of barriers for those trying to reenter society.

“You can’t harm society by voting,” he said. “You can only help it.”

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