Press Release

May 18, 2023
Cardin Leads Renewed Effort to Restore Voting Rights to Formerly Incarcerated Individuals
As a result of these Jim Crow-style laws, in nine States—Alabama (16 percent), Arizona (13 percent), Florida (15 percent), Kentucky (15 percent), Mississippi (16 percent), South Dakota (14 percent), Tennessee (21 percent), Virginia (16 percent), and Wyoming (36 percent)—more than 1 in 8 African Americans are unable to vote because of a felony conviction, twice the national average for African Americans.

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) today reintroduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2023 (DRA), which would finally end the permanent denial of voting rights nationwide for individuals with criminal convictions who have been released from incarceration. The bill, S. 1677, aims to eliminate the complicated patchwork of state laws, many harkening back to the Jim Crow era. The current system exacerbates racial disparities in access to the ballot box and contributes to confusion and misinformation regarding voting rights.

“Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship, and under our Constitution there is no legitimate justification for denying people who have paid their dues from having a voice in our democracy. At the federal level, we must finally remove these remnants of the post-Civil War and Jim Crow eras — laws that were put on the books to permanently disenfranchise African American voters for life regardless of how relatively minor the violations may be,” said Senator Cardin. “Maryland is one of many states that have taken steps to restore the rights of people who have previously been incarcerated. We need to make a change to restore these rights nationally.”

As noted in the legislation, “in 2022, over 4,600,000 citizens of the United States, or about 1 in 50 adults in the United States, could not vote as a result of a felony conviction. Of the 4,600,000 citizens barred from voting then, only 23 percent were in prison or jail. By contrast, 75 percent of persons disenfranchised then resided in their communities while on probation or parole or after having completed their sentences. Approximately 2,200,000 citizens who had completed their sentences were disenfranchised due to restrictive State laws.”

Senate cosponsors of the Democracy Restoration Act include Senators Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Alex Padilla (D-Calif.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

The Democracy Restoration Act is endorsed by a large coalition of civil rights, faith-based and criminal justice groups. This includes the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, the Sentencing Project, the Voting Rights Restoration Working Group, the American Bar Association, the Daniel Initiative, as well as NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., Safer Foundation, Just Future Project, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Federal School Discipline & Climate Coalition, The Economic Equity Roundtable, The Tech Equity Council, Coalition on International Aid, Formerly Incarcerated Persons Working Group, Free Hearts, Stand Up America, National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls, Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, DC Corrections Information Council, and others. 

“With this bill, Congress has the opportunity to remove a barrier to the ballot box that keeps millions of Americans who are living in the community on the outside of our democracy looking in,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. Despite Florida and Virginia moving in the wrong direction on restoring voting rights to people with past criminal convictions, voters and state lawmakers around the country are widely supportive. For communities of color, this reform is especially critical, as they are disproportionately ensnared in the criminal justice system. Congress must pass the Democracy Restoration Act.”

“The Democracy Restoration Act is essential to bringing our democracy closer to its ideals. Stripping citizens of their fundamental right to vote because of criminal convictions is an ugly relic of the Jim Crow era that still strips millions of the most marginalized Americans of representation. For our democracy to truly work, everyone must have a voice and a vote,” said Xavier Persad, Senior Policy Counsel, ACLU.

“Voting rights restoration is not just a criminal justice issue, this is a democracy and a civil rights issue. Millions of Americans are locked out of the ballot box due to a past conviction; yet a majority have returned home with hopes of a better future. They are living in community, building businesses, paying taxes, and raising families, but don’t have a clear path back to full citizenship. We know that civic engagement increases community belonging and public safety; therefore, our country is safest and strongest when everyone can vote. As long as we are carving Americans out of democratic participation, we are failing to realize the true potential of this representative democracy. It is time to divorce ourselves from the racist roots of felony disenfranchisement and restore the vote. The Voting Rights Restoration Working Group remains grateful to Senator Cardin for being a steadfast champion on this issue for over a decade. We look forward to growing this level of support in the 118th Congress,” said Brittany Lovely, Breon Wells, and Kenneth Goldsmith, co-chairs of the Voting Rights Restoration Working Group.

“Today, millions of Americans are barred from voting due to outdated, racist laws that bar people from voting due to their history with the criminal legal system. America is an international outlier; no other modern democracy bars so many people from voting due to their involvement with the criminal legal system. There is simply no place for these laws in a modern society. Moreover, research shows that the act of voting promotes reintegration, social responsibility, and community engagement – all of which reduces future contact with the criminal legal system. The Sentencing Project thanks Senator Ben Cardin for introducing the Democracy Restoration Act, and we urge Congress to pass this legislation so that it can be signed into law as soon as possible,” said Nicole D. Porter, Senior Director of Advocacy with The Sentencing Project.

“[Disenfranchisement] plays no legitimate role in protecting the public and impedes an individual’s successful reintegration into society at the completion of his or her sentence,” said American Bar Association President Deborah Enix-Ross. People lose liberties when convicted of a crime, but they do not lose their citizenship. They are still accorded rights under the Constitution such as free speech and due process, and we find no reason to distinguish voting from these other fundamental rights. Yet, state and federal governments’ application of criminal law disproportionately punishes individuals along racial and ethnic lines, resulting in a stunning correlation between the permanent loss of the right to vote and Black, Indigenous and communities of color. Your landmark bill is a critical step in rectifying a historical wrong.”

“The Daniel Initiative (TDI) applauds Senator Cardin and his colleagues on reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA). This critical legislation provides a pathway to restoring humanity and citizenship to over 4 million formerly incarcerated and justice impacted individuals. Felony disenfranchisement is one of the most heinous and pernicious collateral consequences that impedes an individual’s ability to seek restoration, provide restitution where necessary, and be fully productive contributors to our communities. The Daniel Initiative works to ensure that no one’s right to vote is ever revoked. The DRA would bring us a few steps closer to that aspiration. For us, voting rights restoration is voting rights. In a time where recidivism rates are rising, we believe that this bill equips society with another tool to combat recidivism. TDI would like to thank Senator Cardin for championing this issue for more than a decade. We earnestly endeavor to increase Congressional support of the DRA,” said Breon Wells, President & Founder of The Daniel Initiative.

Studies indicate that disenfranchisement is associated with an increased risk of recidivism. Still, individuals with convictions in a majority of states may not vote while they are on parole and 25 states disenfranchise individuals on felony probation or parole. In 11 states, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several states deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. These state laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and have a disproportionate impact on African Americans and other racial minorities.

In recent years, African Americans have been imprisoned at over five times the rate of whites. More than 6 percent of the voting-age African American population, or 1,800,000 African Americans, are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. Recently, Latinos have been imprisoned at 2.5 times the rate of whites. Approximately 1.7 percent of the voting-age Latino population, or 506,000 Latinos, are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In addition, 1,000,000 women were disenfranchised in 2022, comprising over 20 percent of the total disenfranchised population.

The full text of S. 1677, the Democracy Restoration Act, is available here. A section-by-section summary can be found here.