WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) today introduced the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA) of 2019 (S. 1068) to restore the right to vote in federal elections to individuals released from incarceration. In many states, legislation prevents individuals who have served their time from voting. The House of Representatives passed this bill as a part of the For the People Act (H.R. 1) on March 8, 2019, and it is included in companion legislation introduced in the Senate on March 27. This bill builds on recent progress in criminal justice reform, including last November’s referendum supported by almost two thirds of Florida voters to restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as the bipartisan passage of the FIRST STEP Act last December.
“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allow the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions,” said Senator Cardin. “Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship. Under our constitution, there is no legitimate justification for denying people who have paid their dues from having a voice in our democracy.”
In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million citizens of the United States, or about one in 40 adults, could not vote as a result of a conviction. Of that number, only 22 percent were in prison. Approximately 3.1 million citizens who had completed their sentences were disenfranchised due to restrictive state laws. 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 those who are no longer incarcerated. In 12 states, a conviction can result in lifetime disenfranchisement. Several states deny the right to vote to individuals convicted of certain misdemeanors. In six states—Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia—more than 7 percent of the total population is disenfranchised.
The Democracy Restoration Act (S. 1068) has been 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 more than 40 other organizations working on federal criminal justice reform. Video of today’s panel discussion with advocates is available here.
“Laws that aim to disenfranchise people based on criminal records are a Jim Crow era relic that have no place in our democracy,” said Sonia Gill, Senior Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union. “The Democracy Restoration Act would rightfully restore to reentering citizens the most basic tenet of civic participation, the right to vote.”
“The DRA sends a powerful message to the millions of people disenfranchised because of their criminal records: You will not be locked out of our democracy,” said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s democracy program and Director of its Voting Rights & Elections project. “Our nation was built on second chances. This bill gives those who’ve served their time a pathway back to participating in civic life.”
“It’s long past due to recognize the injustice of excluding millions of citizens from the ballot box as a result of a felony conviction,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. “Depriving people of the right to vote based on a past conviction is akin to establishing a character test for electoral participation. A robust democracy should include the perspective of all citizens, and this legislation is an important step along the way to that goal.”
Senate cosponsors of the S. 1068 include U.S. Senators Harris (D-Calif.), Booker (D-N.J.), Leahy (D-Vt.), Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Reed (D-R.I.), Warren (D-Mass.), Van Hollen (D-Md.), Sanders (D-Vt.), Murray (D-Wash.), Smith (D-Minn.), Hirono (D-Hawaii), Klobuchar (Minn.), Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Durbin (D-Ill.), Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Markey (D-Mass.), Coons (D-De.), Casey (D-Pa.), and Brown (D-Ohio).
State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities. As of 2016, more than 7 percent of the voting-age African-American population, or 2,200,000 African-Americans, was disenfranchised. One out of every 13, or 7.4 percent, of African Americans was disenfranchised as compared to 1.8 percent of individuals of other races. In four states, more than one in five African-Americans were unable to vote in 2016 because of prior convictions (Florida, 23 percent; Kentucky, 22 percent; Tennessee, 21 percent; and Virginia, 20 percent).
Latino citizens are also disproportionately disenfranchised based upon their disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system. In four states (California, 37 percent; New York, 34 percent; Texas, 30 percent; and Arizona, 27 percent), Latinos were disenfranchised by a rate of more than 25 percent.
The Democracy Restoration Act is the second of two bills Senator Cardin will introduce today to build on the success of the FIRST STEP Act as Americans mark Second Chance Month. Earlier today, he introduced the NEW START Act, which would create a reentry program within the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) to award grants to at least six organizations, or partnerships between organizations, to provide business counseling and entrepreneurial development training to returning citizens.
The Democracy Restoration Act would:
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 2018 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, plus the District of Columbia, 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 of Citizens 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. State officials must provide such individuals with any materials that are necessary to register to vote in any such election.
- 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: Reation 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 (52 U.S.C. 10301 et seq.), the National Voter Registration Act (52 U.S.C. 20501), or the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (U.S.C. 20901 et seq.).
Section 8: Restriction on Use of Federal Prison 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 enactment.