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Democrats move to expand voting rights for felons

Democratic states are moving to expand the voting rights of felons as the GOP seeks to tighten voting rules following a spate of losses in the 2020 election.

New York, Washington and Virginia have all recently taken legislative or executive action ensuring previously incarcerated men and women will have easier access to the ballot box.

Advocates have argued that most people who are affected by felony disenfranchisement come from communities of color.

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“The history of this is very much connected to Jim Crow and racism. And sadly, our nation has deep and long history about choosing who gets to vote as a mechanism to keep some people down,” said New York Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell (D), who sponsored legislation that the legislature passed expanding voting rights to previously incarcerated felons.

"And you look at the population within our prison system. You can see why that would be,” he said.

The Democrat-led efforts come amid a growing battle over voting rights, with Republican-controlled state houses across the U.S. moving forward with their own legislation critics argue is intended to restrict voter access.

As of March 24, 361 bills had been introduced in 47 states aimed at tightening voting rules in some way, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

But granting voting rights to felons once they have completed their sentences appears to have bipartisan support.

A poll from the Pew Research Center released Wednesday found that 70 percent of Americans favor allowing people convicted of a felony to vote after serving their sentences, including 84 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of Republicans.

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Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRCC), said the conversation shouldn’t be purely about politics.

“This is more important than red or blue. This is about humanity. This is about how we see our democracies, and whether we believe that every voice matters,” Volz said.

No state permanently bans previously incarcerated felons from voting, but the debate centers around how long a felon should wait until they are released from prison before being able to do so.

O’Donnell’s legislation in New York and legislation passed in Washington state both granted felons the right to vote immediately upon release from prison, even if they are on parole or probation.

Washington State Rep. Tara Simmons (D), who sponsored the legislation, says her own experience being previously incarcerated drove her to push for it.

“I know the feeling of being stigmatized against or being excluded from different parts of our society,” Simmons said. “It’s a personal priority for me to continue to break through that stigma, and to continue to fight for racial equity knowing, you know how these policies disproportionately impact people of color.”

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) also recently signed an executive action that restored voting rights to nearly 70,000 felons in the state who have completed their prison terms.

“Probationary periods can last for years,” Northam said last month while announcing the new policy. “But that’s also time in which a person is living in the community, rebuilding their lives. They should be able to exercise those civil rights, even if they are still under supervision.”

The debate over felony disenfranchisement previously drew attention in Florida, after voters passed Amendment Four in 2018. The referendum allowed felons to vote after they have completed all the terms of their sentence, including parole or probation.

The state house later passed legislation in 2019 requiring previously incarcerated felons to pay off any outstanding fines, fees and costs connected to their convictions before being able to vote again.

A federal appeals court later ruled that the bill didn’t equate to a poll tax, defeating the voting rights advocates that argued otherwise.

The opposition against expanding voting rights to felons mainly lies in perceptions of those people.

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O’Donnell said that most of the opposition facing his bill was rooted in objection to the people being placed on parole.

“[The] criticism laws. Sometimes the parole board releases people who I don't think should be released,” he said. "When you look at the totality of an individual's life, and the totality of what they're like in prison. Those are much better indicators, than one night in 1978.”

Simmons said it was sad to hear some of her colleagues who hadn’t had her experiences criticize her bill.

“It's sad to me that my colleagues are so removed, and that they've not ever had my lived experiences, or even, you know, become educated on them to where they would continue this really punitive approach when, you know, voting is like something that there's no public safety risk,” Simmons said.

While legislation is a good place to start, advocates say that legislative action has to be met with grassroots efforts in order to help formerly incarcerated felons be able to vote again.

“When you take the right to vote away from somebody, it takes work to actually bring that back into democracy,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “And it takes that work for everybody, not just people who are, you know, formerly incarcerated or have been disenfranchised, but especially for those folks.”