Press Release

February 25, 2021
Cardin Leads Senate Call for Restoring Voting Rights to Formerly Incarcerated Individuals

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) today introduced the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA/S. 481) that would end the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with criminal convictions nationwide. The bill aims to eliminate the complicated patchwork of state laws that creates a lack of uniform standards for voting in federal elections, 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,” said Senator Cardin. “The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with criminal convictions. This must end if we truly want to reintegrate ex-offenders as productive members of our communities.”

In 30 States, individuals with convictions may not vote while they are on parole and 28 of those States disenfranchise individuals on felony probation as well. 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 Studies indicate that disenfranchisement is associated with an increased risk of recidivism. In 2020, more than five million individuals and as many as one in five African-Americans in some states were disenfranchised as a result of these laws.

The Democracy Restoration Act (S. 481) is endorsed by a large coalition of civil rights and reform, 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, and other organizations working on federal criminal justice reform. 

“The DRA is a critically important piece of civil rights legislation. The DRA makes our country more just, our democracy more inclusive, and our elections more participatory. The DRA makes space in the public square for second chances, for forgiveness, for redemption, and for love. Thank you, Senator Cardin, for continuing to be such a champion of the DRA,” said Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program.

“The Democracy Restoration Act would begin to right the wrong of disenfranchisement by restoring the right to vote to returning citizens. Stripping the right to vote – a basic human right – is a relic of the Jim Crow era’s suffocating racism. Our democracy works best when all can participate,” said Sonia Gill, Senior Legislative Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union.

“The criminal justice system shouldn’t decide who gets a say in our democracy. One in 16 Black Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction — a rate almost 4 times greater than for people who aren’t Black. The racial injustices that permeate the U.S. criminal justice system now infect the electoral process. The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights to millions of citizens released from prison; an important step to strengthen communities harmed for generations by oppressive laws,” said Kara Gotsch, Deputy Director of The Sentencing Project.

Senate cosponsors of the Democracy Restoration Act include U.S. Senators Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Mark Warner (D-Va.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Mike Bennet (D-Colo.).

As noted in the legislation, state disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. In recent years, African-Americans have been imprisoned at over 5 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. In 9 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.

Latino citizens are also disproportionately disenfranchised based upon their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system. In recent years, Latinos have been imprisoned at 2.5 times the rate of Whites. More than 2 percent of the voting-age Latino population, or 560,000 Latinos, are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. In 34 states Latinos are disenfranchised at a higher rate than the general population. In 11 states 4 percent or more of Latino adults are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction (Alabama, 4 percent; Arizona, 7 percent; Arkansas, 4 percent; Idaho, 4 percent; Iowa, 4 percent; Kentucky, 6 percent; Minnesota, 4 percent; Mississippi, 5 percent; Nebraska, 6 percent; Tennessee, 11 percent, Wyoming, 4 percent), twice the national average for Latinos.

The full text of the Democracy Restoration Act (S. 481) is available here. A section-by-section summary follows.

Section 1: Short title.

Section 2: Findings. 

  • This section details some of the statistics and other problems associated with criminal disfranchisement laws, as well as the recent success of the Florida ballot initiative.
  • 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.), the National Voter Registration Act (42 U.S.C. 1973gg et seq.), and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (U.S.C. 20901 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 (includes state, unit of local government or person) that is served by the institution is: (1) in compliance with Section 3; and (2) 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 on or after its passage.