WASHINGTON – As the Trump Administration looks for ways to legalize voter suppression through its Commission on Election Integrity, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced legislation – the Democracy Restoration Act of 2017 that would strengthen American communities by restoring voting rights to individuals after they have returned to their communities after being 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.
“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. It’s simply wrong that state disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy,” said Senator Cardin. “Casting a vote is one of the most fundamental rights in a democracy and gives you a say in the future of your community. Congress has a responsibility to ensure that right is protected and should be leading an effort to remove barriers and make it easier for more people to register to vote, cast their vote, and make sure their votes are counted.”
In the United States, an estimated 6.1 million adult citizens are currently disenfranchised as a result of a criminal conviction. While 16 states and the District of Columbia already restore voting rights upon release from prison, 34 states continue to restrict the voting rights of people who are no longer incarcerated. In 10 States, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several States deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. Since March 2016, Maryland automatically restores voting rights after individuals are released from prison. The law went into effect after the legislature successfully overrode a veto from Governor Larry Hogan (R-Md.). The new law immediately restored voting rights to approximately 40,000 Marylanders.
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 including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
“Formerly incarcerated citizens’ return from prison to work, pay taxes, raise families, and live as our friends and neighbors in our communities. Yet they lack a voice in our own government. The current system makes it extremely difficult for returning citizens to fully participate in society by perpetuating penalties that have nothing to do with their past,” said Jennifer Bellamy, ACLU legislative counsel. “This bill would restore federal voting rights to over 4.7 million American citizens who are part of our communities and should not be treated as second class citizens.”
“Now more than ever, it is important that we both expand and strengthen access to the ballot box,” said Nicole M. Austin-Hillery, Director and Counsel, Washington Office of The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Ensuring the restoration of voting rights to the formerly incarcerated expands the chorus of voices participating in our Democracy while simultaneously strengthening our communities and improving our election system.”
Senate co-sponsors of the Democracy Restoration Act of 2017 include Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).
State disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities. More than 7 percent of the voting-age African-American population, or over 2 million African-Americans, are disenfranchised. Currently, 1 of every 13 African-Americans is rendered unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement– a rate more than four times greater than non-African Americans. In four states, more than one in five African Americans is unable to vote because of prior convictions (Florida-23 percent; Kentucky-22 percent; Tennessee-21 percent; Virginia-20 percent).
Latino citizens and Native Americans are also disproportionately disenfranchised based on their disproportionate 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 patchwork of laws to restore the right to vote leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in Federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, exacerbating the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system that take away the right to vote for so many minorities,” Senator Cardin added.
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 (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 after its passage.