By Matt Vasilogambros
A mistake Rynn Young made decades ago, when he was just a teenager, cost him the right to vote.
Twenty-one years after his drug possession conviction, he got his ballot back when newly elected Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order last month restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons after release.
“It’s been a very long time coming,” Young said at the signing ceremony in Frankfort, Kentucky, surrounded by civil rights leaders. “I’ve never had the right to vote. My words have always fallen on deaf ears … I appreciate the opportunity for a second chance, just to be heard.”
This was one of Beshear’s first acts as governor. Two days earlier, he announced at his inauguration that he would restore the right to vote for 140,000 “men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now.” His Christian faith, he said, teaches him forgiveness.
“They deserve to participate in our great democracy,” he told the inaugural crowd in front of the state Capitol in Frankfort.
Kentucky joined 17 other states that have restored voting rights over the past several decades to felons after they leave prison. In every state except Maine and Vermont, felons are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban remains for a certain period (Iowa has a lifetime ban, unless reversed by the governor) after they are released, disenfranchising millions of people.
In the past year, however, six states implemented measures restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.
This shift is part of a broader reaction against the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Across the political spectrum, more people are questioning the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and backing anti-recidivism efforts.
“The vast majority of people disenfranchised live in our communities, own homes and pay taxes,” said Sarah Shannon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia who has studied the impact of reinstating voting rights to felons. “They’re not behind bars. So, what is it that’s stopping us from allowing those folks from fully participating in our democracy?”
Still, strong opposition remains from lawmakers and election integrity advocates who say felons made a choice and must live with the consequences. Other opponents say these measures are ploys by Democrats to gain more voters, a charge Democrats deny.
Long Time Coming
For some former convicts, activists and lawmakers, last year’s success was the culmination of years of effort. In New Jersey, for example, Democratic state Rep. Shavonda Sumter has lobbied her colleagues since she took office in 2012, slowly building an appetite for action.
In December, New Jersey enfranchised people with felony convictions. The measure, which applies to people who leave prison but are still on parole or probation, restored the voting rights of 80,000 people.
Sumter, who sponsored the measure, told Stateline she is proud to have changed a policy that was “inherently, systematically wrong.” African Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated and disenfranchised in New Jersey than residents of other races, according to data compiled by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice nonprofit.
“When we start carving people out just because of a crime they committed that had nothing to do with voting, we start stripping them of humanity,” Sumter said.
She hopes that on Election Day in November, she can walk around her hometown of Paterson, handing out “I Voted” stickers, and not have disenfranchised constituents tell her they can’t accept one.
But Republican state Rep. Hal Wirths, who previously served on a New Jersey parole board, voted against the measure. He says those on parole or probation haven’t yet served their sentences and shouldn’t be allowed to vote until they do. Around 20 states allow felons to re-register to vote after their parole or probation period and after they’ve paid any fines.
“I believe in everyone getting second chances,” Wirths said. “We all make mistakes. The main thing here is that they haven’t finished their sentences yet.”
The National Topography
In California and Iowa, measures to restore voting rights to felons made it through one legislative chamber but stalled in the other amid disagreement over whether to include felons with murder or rape convictions. Legislation in New Mexico stalled after making it out of committee, while measures in six other states didn’t progress.
Elsewhere, proponents for enfranchising felons have turned to the courts. In Minnesota, four residents with criminal records are suing Democratic Secretary of State Steve Simon, in his capacity as the state’s top election official, to reinstate their and other formerly incarcerated residents’ voting rights.
Elizer Darris, 35, has never had the right to vote. As a juvenile he was sentenced to life in prison for murder, but his sentence was later reduced and he was freed in 2016. Now, he works as an organizer with the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and he said he wants to help choose the elected officials who make decisions that affect him.
“It’s like being invisible,” Darris said. “It doesn’t make our communities safer to relegate people to the corners.”
While he would not comment on the pending lawsuit, Peter Bartz-Gallagher, communications director for Minnesota’s secretary of state, said even as Simon is the defendant in this case, he remains in favor of restoring the right to vote to people as soon as they get out of prison. Around 50,000 felons who have finished their sentences remain disenfranchised in Minnesota, he said.
“It is an investment in helping people connect with their community,” Bartz-Gallagher said. “It leads to a stronger democracy and makes communities safer. This isn’t a niche issue. It affects a lot of people who are trying to rebuild their lives.”
Some opponents such as the Minnesota Voters Alliance, a St. Paul-based election integrity group, do not think the secretary of state’s defense of the state law disenfranchising felons is strong enough. The group has filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit and join the defense.
Andy Cilek, executive director of the alliance, which calls itself nonpartisan, said the previous support for felon enfranchisement from Simon and Democratic Attorney General Keith Ellison, who will lead the state’s defense, make them biased in the case.
Further, Cilek thinks this issue should be resolved through the legislature by amending the state constitution. And he says measures that enfranchise felons really are about helping Democrats boost voter registration.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Cilek said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The lawsuit is currently in discovery, which will take several more months, said David McKinney, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Minnesota, which is representing the four plaintiffs in court. After trying for years to get bills through the legislature, McKinney said it’s time for the courts to act.
The Case in Florida
The future of a Florida measure that would restore the voting rights of 1.4 million felons is also in the hands of the courts.
After nearly two-thirds of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment in 2018 that would enfranchise people with felony convictions, Republican lawmakers and GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis have sought to limit the measure. A new law requires that all court fees and fines and other criminal restitutions be paid before people can vote.
This was met by a series of lawsuits from civil rights groups, who argued the measure constituted a poll tax. Daniel Smith, a University of Florida political science professor, testified in October this new law prevents 80% of otherwise eligible felons from voting.
“We thought we were on a good track to get these rights restored, but we’ve had all of these obstacles thrown in the way,” said Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, one of the organizations suing the state. “We’re waiting on further court decisions. There is a lot up in the air.”
The organization has held several training sessions for lawyers who want to work pro bono to help felons determine whether they can register to vote or have outstanding fines and fees.
In October, a federal judge ruled the state couldn’t deny voting rights to people who are “genuinely unable” to pay legal fees. Republicans have argued that these fees are part of a criminal sentence and must be paid before voting rights are restored.
Florida lawmakers are expected to draft new legislation when they return to work this month. In the meantime, DeSantis has asked the Florida Supreme Court to weigh in.
Other states are trying to ease some of that confusion. In Iowa, felons leaving prison will now be handed filled-out forms by the Department of Corrections to make it easier for them to apply to get their voting rights restored by the governor. Previously, discharged inmates had to fill out a complicated form on their own.
Iowa lawmakers failed in 2019 to pass a constitutional amendment that would have restored voting rights for felons. Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has said she will wait on the legislature instead of signing an executive order.
States will continue to explore ways of giving voting rights back to felons, said the University of Georgia’s Shannon. While some states will make sweeping changes applying to all felons, others might limit enfranchisement to people who committed certain crimes. It’s unlikely, she said, that many states would go a step further and start giving those in prison voting rights.
Matt Vasilogambros is a reporter for Stateline.org, where this story first appeared.