April 10, 2014

Democracy Restoration Act

Mr. President, today I am pleased to introduce the Democracy Restoration Act, known as the DRA.  I want to thank Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy and Senators Durbin, Whitehouse, Booker, Harkin, and Sanders as original co-sponsors of this legislation.

 

          As the late Senator Kennedy often said, civil rights is the ``unfinished business'' of America. The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights in federal elections to approximately 5.8 million citizens who have been released from prison and are back living in their communities.

 

          After the Civil War, Congress enacted and the states ratified the Fifteenth Amendment, which provides that ``the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.''

 

          Unfortunately, many states passed laws during the Jim Crow period after the Civil War to make it more difficult for newly-freed slaves to vote in elections. Such laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, and disenfranchisement measures. Some disenfranchisement measures applied to misdemeanor convictions and in practice could result in lifetime disenfranchisement, even for individuals that successfully reintegrated into their communities as law-abiding citizens.

 

          It took Congress and the states nearly another century to eliminate the poll tax, upon the ratification of the Twenty-Fourth Amendment in 1964. The Amendment provides that ``the rights of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.''

 

          Shortly thereafter Congress enacted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which swept away numerous State laws and procedures that had denied African-Americans and other minorities their constitutional right to vote. For example, the Act outlawed the use of literacy or history tests that voters had to pass before registering to vote or casting their ballot.

 

          The act specifically prohibits states from imposing any ``voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ..... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.'' Congress overwhelmingly reauthorized the Act in 2006, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush. Congress is now working on legislation to revitalize the VRA after recent Supreme Court decisions curtailed its reach.

 

          In 2014, I am concerned that there are still several areas where the legacy of Jim Crow laws and state disenfranchisement statutes lead to unfairness in Federal elections. First, state laws governing the restoration of voting rights vary widely throughout the country, such that persons in some States can easily regain their voting rights, while in other States persons effectively lose their right to vote permanently. Second, these state disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Third, this patchwork of state laws results in the lack of a uniform standard for eligibility to vote in Federal elections, and leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives. Finally, studies indicate that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, and disenfranchisement hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into their community.

 

          In 35 States, convicted individuals may not vote while they are on parole. In 11 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States require prisoners to seek discretionary pardons from Governors, or action by the parole or pardon board, in order to regain their right to vote. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. States are slowly moving or repeal or loosen many of these barriers to voting for ex-prisoners.

 

          An estimated 5,850,000 citizens of the United States, or about 1 in 40 adults in the United States, currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction.  Of the 5,8500,000 citizens barred from voting, only 25 percent are in prison.  By contrast, 75 percent of the disenfranchised reside in their communities while on probation or parole after having completed their sentences.  Approximately 2,600,000 citizens who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws.  In 6 states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – more than 7 percent of the total population is disenfranchised.

 

          Studies show that a growing number of African-American men, for example, will be disenfranchised at some point in their life, partly due to mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have a disproportionate impact on minorities.

 

          Eight percent of the African-American population, or 2 million African-Americans, are disenfranchised.  Given current rates of incarceration, approximately 1 in 3 of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime.  Currently, 1 of every 13 African-Americans are rendered unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, which is a rate 4 times greater than non African-Americans.  Nearly 8 percent of African-Americans are disenfranchised, compared to less than 2 percent of non-African-Americans.  In 3 states more than 1 in 5 African-Americans are unable to vote because of prior convictions: the rates are Florida at 23 percent, Kentucky at 22 percent, and Virginia at 20 percent.

 

Latino citizens are disproportionately disenfranchised based on their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system.  If current incarceration trends hold, 17 percent of Latino men will be incarcerated during their lifetime, in contrast to less than 6 percent of non-Latino white men.  When analyzing the data across 10 States, Latinos generally have disproportionately higher rates of disenfranchisement compared to their presence in the voting age population.  In 6 out of 10 States studies in 2003, Latinos constitute more than 10 percent of the total number of persons disenfranchised by State felony laws.  In 4 States (California, 37 percent; New York, 34 percent; Texas, 30 percent; and Arizona, 27 percent), Latinos were disenfranchised by a rate of more than 25 percent.  Native Americans are also disproportionately disenfranchised.

 

          Congress has addressed part of this problem by enacting the Fair Sentencing Act to partially reduce the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine convictions. Congress is now considering legislation that would more broadly revise mandatory sentencing procedures and create a fairer system of sentencing.  While I welcome these steps, I believe that Congress should take stronger action now to remedy this particular problem.

 

 

          The legislation would restore voting rights to prisoners after their release from incarceration. It requires that prisons receiving federal funds notify people about their right to vote in federal elections when they are leaving prison, sentenced to probation, or convicted of a misdemeanor. The bill authorizes the Department of Justice and individuals harmed by violation of this Act to sue to enforce its provisions. The bill generally provides State election officials with a grace period to resolve voter eligibility complaints without a lawsuit before an election.

 

          The legislation is narrowly crafted to apply to federal elections, and retains the States' authorities to generally establish voting qualifications. This legislation is therefore consistent with Congressional authority under the Constitution and voting rights statutes, as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

 

          I am pleased that this legislation has been endorsed by a large coalition of public interest organizations, including: civil rights and reform organizations; religious and faith-based organizations; and law enforcement and criminal justice organizations. In particular I want to thank the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and the NAACP for their work on this legislation.

          This legislation is ultimately designed to reduce recidivism rates and help reintegrate ex-prisoners back into society. When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they are rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. With these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should also come the rights of citizenship, including the right to vote.

 

          In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act into law, after overwhelming approval and strong bipartisan support in Congress. The legislation expanded the Prison Re-Entry Initiative, by providing job training, placement services, transitional housing, drug treatment, medical care, and faith-based mentoring. At the signing ceremony, President Bush said: ``We believe that even those who have struggled with a dark past can find brighter days ahead. One way we act on that belief is by helping former prisoners who have paid for their crimes. We help them build new lives as productive members of our society.''

         

          The Democracy Restoration Act is fully consistent with the goals of the Second Chance Act, as Congress and the States seek to reduce recidivism rates, strengthen the quality of life in our communities and make them safer, and reduce the burden on taxpayers.

 

          More recently, in a February 2014 speech, Attorney General Eric Holder called on elected officials to reexamine disenfranchisement statutes and enact reforms to restore voting rights.

 

          I therefore urge Congress to address the issue of disenfranchisement and support this legislation.