Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) has introduced a bill, S. 2235, the Democracy Restoration Act that would reduce recidivism rates by restoring voting rights to individuals after they have served their time and have been released from incarceration. Studies indicate that former prisoners who have voting rights restored are less likely to reoffend, and that disenfranchisement hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into their community. Original cosponsors of S. 2235 include Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Companion legislation also was introduced today in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee.
An estimated 5.85 million citizens of the United States – about 1 in 40 adults in the United States – currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction. Of the estimated 5.85 million citizens barred from voting, only 25% are in prison. By contrast, 75% of the disenfranchised reside in their communities while on probation or parole or after having completed their sentences. Approximately 2.6 million citizens who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws.
“When prisoners are released, they are expected to obey the law, get a job, and pay taxes as they seek a fair shot at being rehabilitated and reintegrated into their community. Along with these responsibilities and obligations of citizenship should be the right to vote,” said Senator Ben Cardin. “The patchwork of state laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for restoration of voting rights.”
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.
“The right to vote is foundational to our democracy and to our values as a nation. Included in our basic democratic ideals is the notion that all citizens, including those who have served sentences and been released from prison, are afforded the opportunity to reintegrate into our communities. I am proud that my state of Vermont protects the rights of its citizens, and we as a nation should follow this example,” said Senator Leahy.
“The right to vote is one of the most important privileges and responsibilities we have as American citizens. We should focus our efforts on expanding participation in our democracy, and not disenfranchising those Americans who have already paid their debt to society and are on the road to rehabilitation,” Senator Durbin said.
“This is a civil rights issue, and fundamentally, about fairness, but not only that: Once offenders have paid their debt to society, it’s important to work quickly to reintegrate them into their communities to help prevent recidivism,” Senator Booker said. “Restoring one of our most sacred American rights is a critical first step.”
“Voting is the most fundamental right in our democracy, and the idea that people who have made past mistakes and paid the price for those mistakes should not be able to exercise that right is simply unacceptable. The Democracy Restoration Act would help correct this injustice and restore voting rights for millions of people,” said Senator Tom Harkin.
State disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. Eight percent of the African-American population, or 2 million African-Americans, are disenfranchised, compared to less than 2 percent of non-African-Americans. Currently, 1 of every 13 African-Americans is rendered unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement– a rate four times greater than non-African Americans. In three states, more than one in five African Americans is unable to vote because of prior convictions (Florida-23 percent; Kentucky-22 percent; Virginia-20 percent). Latino citizens and Native Americans are also disproportionately disenfranchised based on their representation in the criminal justice system. In four states, Latinos were disenfranchised by a rate of more than 25 percent (California- 37 percent; New York-34 percent; Texas-30 percent; Arizona-27 percent).
The Democracy Restoration Act 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, the Brennan Center for Justice, the ACLU, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP, and Blacks in Law Enforcement of America have played a leadership role advancing this legislation. Most recently, in a February 2014 speech, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called on elected officials to reexamine disenfranchisement statutes and enact reforms to restore voting rights.
S. 2235, the Democracy Restoration Act, follows the precedent of the Second Chance Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008, as a measure to reduce recidivism rates, strengthen the quality of life in our communities and make them safer, and reduce the burden on taxpayers.
Section 1: Short title.
Section 2: Findings.
- This section details some of the statistics and other problems associated with criminal disfranchisement laws.
- There are no standard qualifications for voting in federal elections, so disparate state standards effectively determine who may vote in federal elections, and the same individual may be arbitrarily allowed to vote by one state, but barred by the next.
- The 48 states that prohibit voting by some or all people with convictions disproportionately disfranchise racial and ethnic minorities.
- Disfranchising citizens who are living and working in our communities hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
Section 3: Voting Rights Protected.
- This section guarantees all citizens the right to vote in elections for federal office regardless of felony or misdemeanor criminal conviction.
- An individual’s voting rights may be restricted, however, in elections that take place while s/he is incarcerated and serving a felony sentence.
Section 4: Enforcement of Federal Voting Rights.
- This section authorizes both the Department of Justice and individuals harmed by violation of this Act to sue to enforce its provisions.
- Unless an alleged violation occurs during the 30 days prior to a federal election, individuals must attempt to resolve grievances by providing notice to state election officials before they may file suit. State election officials have 90 days after receipt of a complaint to correct a violation, or 20 days if the complaint is filed within 120 days prior to a federal election. If a violation occurs within 30 days of a federal election, individuals may file suit immediately, without providing notice.
- Neither the Department of Justice nor aggrieved individuals may seek monetary damages.
- Section 5: Notification of Restoration of Voting Rights.
- This section obligates state officials, the federal Bureau of Prisons, and the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System to provide written notification of the right to register and vote in federal elections to any individual who has been convicted of a criminal offense.
- Notice must be given at the time of sentencing in cases involving misdemeanor charges, and felony charges for which a sentence of probation-only is given.
- Notice must be given at the time of release from incarceration in cases involving felony charges pursuant to which an individual serves time in a correctional institution.
Section 6: Definitions.
- “Correctional institution or facility” includes all public and private facilities in which individuals are incarcerated pursuant to criminal conviction, but does not include residential treatment centers.
- “Election” means any primary, special, runoff, or general election, including party conventions and caucuses held for purposes of nominating candidates, and elections held to designate delegates to a political party’s national nominating convention.
- “Federal office” means the positions of President, Vice President, and Senator, Representative, Delegate, or Resident Commissioner to the Congress of the United States.
- “Probation” means any period of probation imposed by a federal, state, or local court, without regard to conditions, or lack thereof, related to the person’s movement, payment of restitution, reporting or supervision.
Section 7: Relation to Other Laws.
- This section makes clear that this Act does not prevent states from providing more expansive federal voting rights than mandated herein.
- This Act also is not intended and should not be read to limit or replace the voting rights afforded by other federal laws, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973 et seq.) and the National Voter Registration Act (42 U.S.C. 1973gg et seq.).
Section 8: Restriction on Use of Federal Funds.
- This section provides that federal funds may not be used to construct or improve correctional institutions unless the jurisdiction served by the institution has in place a program to notify people released from incarceration of their federal voting rights.
Section 9: Effective Date.
- This Act applies prospectively to any federal election held after its passage