Restoring rights for felons a rare bipartisan vote change

TJ King had candidates and causes to support, but he was unable to vote in the last Nebraska election.

A communications specialist with the Nebraska AIDS Project, King walked off probation in August after serving time for drug and theft convictions. In many states, he could have voted in the November general election, but Nebraska requires a two-year wait after completing a felony sentence before someone can register.

King’s first chance to vote will be during the 2024 presidential election — unless a legislative proposal introduced in January that would eliminate the two-year requirement passes and becomes law. That would likely change the timeline for restoring voting rights for King and thousands of other Nebraskans.

Voting, King said in an interview, gives ‚Äúsome of your power back and some of your voice back. Being able to vote, being able to have a say in what happens in your society, in your state, is extremely important.”

Restoring the voting rights of ex-felons gained national attention after Florida lawmakers weakened a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new election police unit backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSandis arrested 20 ex-felons. Several of them said they were confused by the arrests because they had been allowed to register to vote.

Efforts like these to discourage ex-felons from voting appear to be extreme across states, even as some Republican-led states continue to restrict voting access in other ways.

At least 14 states have introduced proposals this year focused on restoring voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. An Oregon proposal would allow felons to vote while incarcerated. A Tennessee bill would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is completed, except for a small group of crimes. Texas legislation would restore voting rights to those on probation or parole.

In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed a bill that restores voting rights to convicted felons once they are released from prison. A bill moving through the New Mexico legislature would do the same.

“Restoring voting rights is really an issue where we’ve seen bipartisan momentum,” said Patrick Berry, adviser to the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

More than 4.6 million people are disenfranchised in the United States because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, which studies the issue and advocates for the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons.

Laws vary by state, based on clemency requirements, payment of fines, fees and child support, and when a sentence (including probation and parole) is considered complete. The effects fall disproportionately on people of color, particularly black citizens, who represent one-third of the total disenfranchised population while making up about 12% of the total population.

In Nebraska, nearly 18,000 people can’t vote because of felony convictions, said Project Sentencing Advocacy Director Nicole Porter. This includes 7,072 who fall under the two-year waiting requirement and are currently ineligible to vote. The rest have not completed their sentences.

Steve Smith of Civic Nebraska, part of a large coalition of groups supporting the measure, said the wait creates a pool of taxpayers who can’t choose their representatives.

“You are politically dead and you cannot vote for the people who impose these taxes,” he said.

The bill that would eliminate the wait would change a 2005 law. Before then, felonies in Nebraska carried a lifetime ban from voting in most cases.

At that time Nebraska was in accord with other states. Now, while some states require waiting times for specific offenses or define completion of a sentence as including things like fines and restitution, Nebraska is alone in requiring a general waiting period beyond prison and parole or probation, he said. Margaret Love, co. -founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which maintains a 50-state database on restitution.

The bill’s author, D-State Sen. Justin Wayne, said he went door-to-door in his first election in 2016 and was told by would-be voters they couldn’t vote. A big reason was confusion about the law’s waiting period, he said.

He has introduced bills several times to eliminate the waiting period, coming close to success in 2017 when a bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Wayne, who represents parts of Omaha with strong minority populations, said reconnecting people with the voting process is integral to successful re-entry. His bill was advanced last week from a committee to the full legislature.

“When people come out of our system, they need to feel engaged in their community, and the number one way for a person to feel engaged in their community is to be able to vote for the leadership of that community,” he said. .

Kathy Wilcott, a member of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, was the lone dissenter among the nearly 20 witnesses who spoke on Wayne’s bill. Wilcot emphasized that she was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the university.

“I think hopefully the waiting period reinforces the fact that voting is something very special and hopefully that will be part of the things that a person would think about if they’re tempted to break the law again,” he said.

Three of the witnesses with criminal records who spoke in favor of the legislation said in later interviews that the waiting period is not a deterrent to future crime, but rather a deterrent for those who have served their sentences.

King, 51, battled addiction for years and spent five years in prison after being convicted of possession of the party drug ecstasy and theft by deception, ending his probation last August.

King works in the field of HIV/AIDS and volunteers for various organizations, but said voting is still the most direct way to get involved and teared up when talking about not being able to vote.

“I felt so hopeless and helpless that I couldn’t make my voice heard in this last election,” King said. “There are a lot of things that were on the ballot here in Nebraska that hit home with a lot of things that I stand for.”

Demetrius Gatson is among more than 10,000 people in Nebraska who are ineligible to vote because they have not completed their sentences. Because of her probationary period, she will have to wait until 2030 to vote.

Since her release in 2018, she has earned graduate degrees and served in various volunteer roles. Now 48, Gatson has started her own nonprofit and is the executive director of the QUEENS Butterfly House, a safe house for women trying to reintegrate into society.

For the people she works with, being able to register to vote provides a sense of acceptance, especially when there are so many barriers about where they can live, what jobs they can work, and who they can associate with. he said.

Gatson said there are critical issues she cares about, including education and criminal justice, but said, “I don’t have a say in anything that happens in my country because I’m a criminal.”

Steven Scott, 33, was released on parole in 2015 after serving more than four years for assault and other charges. After his release, he was repeatedly turned down for apartments, got a job only because his boss knew him, and had his pursuit of an advanced degree derailed after his record was revealed.

He is now married with two young children and owns his own business, a physical rehabilitation and sports training center. He also regained voting rights and voted for Republican candidates in his first elections, including in 2020. He sees the two-year waiting period as one link in a long chain of barriers for those trying to rejoin society.

“You can’t harm society by voting,” he said. “You can only help it.”

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Associated Press writer Margery Beck contributed to this report.

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The Associated Press’ race and voting coverage is supported by the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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