2016 has seen several state legislators propose changes in the regulation of voting rights for individuals with felonies, and the timeframe for felons to receive the right to vote.
The ability for a convicted felon to vote depends on the state, and ranges from several states such as Alabama, whose policy dictates that felons must apply to be able to vote, to others like Vermont and Rhode Island, who allow convicted felons in prison to submit absentee ballots to vote in elections.
Several states have taken up this divisive issue, with California and Maryland successfully changing laws to expand voting rights to felons, while Louisiana chose not to amend the rights of its convicted felons within the state.
In Louisiana, HB 598 would have granted voting rights to convicted felons immediately following their release from incarceration, regardless if the individual is on probation or parole.
The bill, which was defeated by a 60 to 37 margin, would have altered current state law which requires convicted felons to finish their probation or parole sentences before registering to vote.
Supporters of changing voting rights laws for felons state that restoring voting rights to these individuals would help them reintegrate post release, with Rep. Pat Smith arguing that these individuals “can’t be good citizens if they can’t vote.”
Opponents argue that by committing a crime, ex-prisoners have shown lack of trustworthiness, character, or mental competency, thus forfeiting their right to vote.
In California, Assembly Bill 2466 grants voting rights to individuals on probation or parole, and grants voting rights to felons currently serving in county jails, excluding state and federal jails.
The ACLU estimates this legislation will grant around 50,000 Californians the right to vote. Rep. Shirley Weber, who introduced the legislation, argued the importance of convicted felons voting, claiming that “civic participation can be a critical component of reducing recidivism.”
In Maryland, HB 980 authorizes ex-prisoners to register to vote, including those serving on probation or parole without restriction. HB 980, a fiercely debated proposed bill regarding convicted felon voting rights, overcame a veto by Governor Larry Hogan and achieved a 3/5th majority in both the House and Senate to become law.
However, granting the right to vote to convicted felons doesn’t necessarily correlate to these individuals actually registering and voting, such as in the state of Virginia. On April 22nd, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the right to vote for around 200,000 citizens with felonies and was widely expected to play a role in the upcoming 2016 Presidential Election. But, according to Politico’s correspondence with the Virginia Election office, “as of June 30th, only 8,170 of the newly eligible Virginians have registered to vote.”
For some, this discrepancy casts a shadow over the benefits of reintegration of convicted felons through voting rights, but, it is also mitigated by low voter turnout across the board in the United States.
All three states represent a shift in the legislative belief regarding what rights are unalienable, and how soon a convicted felon should receive the right to vote, either after finishing their sentence, or in the case of states like Rhode Island, Vermont, and California, if the right to vote should even be removed at all.State legislatures will undoubtedly continue to introduce and debate legislation regarding convicted felon voting rights, as more states set precedence on allowing these individuals to participate in the political process.