WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), along with Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Constitution Subcommittee Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), and Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have introduced a bill, the Democracy Restoration Act, to strengthen communities by reducing recidivism rates through the restoration of voting rights to individuals after they have served their time and have been released from incarceration. S. 772 would restore voting rights in federal elections to the million Americans who are out of prison and living in the community. 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. Once again, companion legislation was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee.
In the United States, an estimated 5.85 million adult citizens are currently disenfranchised as a result of a criminal conviction. While 15 states and the District of Columbia already restore voting rights upon release from prison, 35 states continue to restrict the voting rights of people who are no longer incarcerated. In 11 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. Earlier this month, the Maryland Senate passed legislation that would restore voting rights for former felons on parole or probation.
“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of 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,” said Senator Cardin. “Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”
“This legislation is about simple fairness for those who have paid their debt to society. It goes against the core of who we are as a nation to continuously punish those who have served their time and are working to reintegrate into our society. Passing the Democracy Restoration Act would right this wrong,” Senator Reid said.
“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.
“Prisoners who complete their sentences have usually paid their debt to society,” said Senator Whitehouse, a former U.S. Attorney and Attorney General for Rhode Island who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “As they reintegrate into our communities, we should not deny them their basic right to vote. Our legislation would correct this injustice, and allow former prisoners to again participate in the democratic process.”
“From suffragettes through Civil Rights, expanding access to the ballot box in America has always been a move in the right direction,” Senator Mikulski said. “Disenfranchising former offenders does a disservice to the very idea of democracy. If an American citizen has paid their debt to society after committing a crime, our focus must be on their rehabilitation and full reintegration into society – voting rights and all.”
“When people have paid their debt to society we must restore their rights of citizenship. We must make it easier, not harder, for people to vote and participate in the political process,” Senator Sanders said.
“When people leave prison, they are determined to further their education, find jobs, and rebuild their lives,” Senator Brown said. “We should be supporting these efforts instead of keeping them shackled by their past mistakes. The right to vote allows Americans to remain active in their communities – and it is critical to our efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into society.”
“The right to vote is a fundamental right that should transcend political differences,” said Senator Gillibrand. “We should take steps to ensure that those who have already served their debt to society can be productive members of our communities and contribute in a positive way and never recommit a crime. That means restoring their full rights as American citizens, including their fundamental right to vote and participate in our democracy. The Democracy Restoration Act would expand civil rights, and make our communities safer, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to support it.”
“If we expect to live up to our national ideals of liberty and justice for all, we must ensure that our democratic process is as consistent and fair as possible. It’s not fair to deny the constitutionally-protected right to vote to people who have paid their debt to society.” Senator Booker said. “By reinstating voting rights for those who have been rehabilitated, we can empower people to become better citizens, reduce recidivism rates, and improve not only the health of our democracy, but of our communities.”
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 American Civil Liberties Union (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.
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).
S. 772, 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.