I. In Focus This Week
News Analysis: Rights restoration on the rise
Restoration of voting rights for ex-felons grows, gets easier
This election year, more than a quarter of a million people previously prevented from casting a ballot will be able to join their neighbors at the polls thanks to the work of state legislatures and officials.
Voting rights restoration for ex-felons has become one of the hot topics for the 2016 election cycle driven largely by the actions of elected officials in Maryland and Virginia.
Currently 38 states and the District of Columbia allow ex-felons to regain their voting rights upon the completion of their incarceration. In other states ex-felons may have their rights restored following the completion of all the terms of their service. In eight states they must apply for the restoration of their rights and in two states — Maine and Vermont — felons are permitted to vote while incarcerated.
What follows are some of the more headline-grabbing rights restoration situations in six states.
Just this week, the Delaware Senate approved legislation that will allow felons who have been released from incarceration, but may still have to complete some form of financial restitution in connection with their sentence.
Those still serving probation and with disqualifying felonies—murder, sexual crimes and public trust crimes—will still not be permitted to vote.
According to Elaine Manlove, state election commissioner, the change in law, if signed with the governor, will have no impact on the processing registrations for her office.
The voting rights of about 20,000 ex-felons hangs in the balance waiting for a ruling from the state’s highest court.
Currently, ex-felons in Iowa who have not committed “infamous crimes” may have their voting rights restored upon application to and approval of the governor’s office. However, in late March the Iowa Supreme Court heard arguments in a case brought on behalf of Iowa woman who lost her right to vote based on a 2008 non-violent drug charge. Lawyers on behalf of the plaintiff argued that the crime does not meet the definition of “infamous crime.”
Arguments inside and outside of the court have been passionate. Secretary of State Paul Pate penned an op-ed for The Des Moines Register supporting the state’s current system of restoring rights to certain ex-felons through an approval process.
While the Supreme Court is considering the arguments, the office of Gov. Terry Branstad has streamlined the existing process for ex-felons to have their voting rights restored.
“This newly re-designed application form strikes a balance between ensuring that offenders have demonstrated their ability to regain their voting rights, while also creating a more user-friendly process for offenders who would like their voting rights restored,” Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds said in the release. “This application form is just another example of our administration’s commitment to promote fairness for the victims of crime while being mindful that rehabilitated offenders should have an opportunity to receive clemency.”
In the waning days of his administration former Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order restoring the voting rights to about 140,000 Kentuckians, however, within hours of being sworn-in, Gov. Matt Bevin (R) signed another executive order rescinding Beshear’s order. Bevin’s order though, does not take away the voting rights of ex-felons who received a rights restoration certificate from the Department of Corrections between Nov. 24 and December 22, 2015.
Bevin, who had been on the record as supporting rights restoration justified his actions by saying it should have been done legislatively and not through executive order.
"While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights,” Gov. Matt Bevin (R-Ky.) said in announcing the order, “it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people."
In the Legislature, the House approved legislation that would automatically restore the rights of some nonviolent ex-felons once they have completed the terms of their service. On the Senate side, the Senate approved a bill that would put the issue before the voters.
This April, about 40,000 Marylanders had an opportunity to cast their ballot in a primary election due the restoration of their voting rights.
In 2015, the General Assembly approved legislation restoring the rights of ex-felons to vote upon their release from incarceration and even if they still have terms of service to complete — parole, probation, financial restitution.
Since becoming law on March 10, rights groups have worked to get as may ex-felons registered as possible, especially in advance of the April primary.
"All of us will be working very hard over the next couple of years to register more and advertise it," Baltimore NAACP president Tessa Hill-Aston told WBAL.
In Minnesota, felons must complete their parole and probation before their voting rights are then automatically restored, but some, including Gov. Mark Dayton support speeding that process up.
Dayton told reporters recently that he would like to be able to restore voting rights in the same fashion that Virginia Gov. Terry McAullife has done, but said that legal counsel have told him his office does not have that unilateral authority.
“We looked very carefully to see what the boundaries are,” Dayton said according to the Pioneer Press. “I think people who have served their time and paid their debt to society deserve to be re-enfranchised as citizens of this country.”
Currently about 47,000 ex-felons could have their rights restored much faster if they were able to have them restored upon being released from incarceration, but still had terms of service to complete.
In 2015, bi-partisan legislation would have restored the rights to ex-felons upon release from incarceration, but according to local press reports, while it was bi-partisan it didn’t have enough support to make it out of committee.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe made headlines in April when he signed an executive order restoring the voting rights to more than 206,000 ex-felons.
Upon announcing the executive order, McAuliffe said: “There may be some individuals who will try and demagogue this issue and will make reckless accusations,” McAuliffe said. “Our action today does not pardon or change the sentence for any man or woman affected by this plan. These individuals have completed their sentences. They have atoned for their actions.”
According to a report released by McAullife, about 80 percent of the ex-felons who had their rights restored were convicted of non-violent crimes.
In about three weeks of the executive order, several thousand ex-felons have registered to vote.
Backlash from the state’s Republican Party was sift and they have enlisted the help of an attorney to pursue legal action and some members of the General Assembly are meeting to see what they can do legislatively.
Ex-felons quickly began taking advantage of McAuliffe’s action and in some cases, the number of new registrants overwhelmed local registrars. Within in days of the announcement, elections officials in Richmond and Henrico County were sifting through hundreds of voter registration applications.
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, much of the confusion arose among registrars because they said they were not able to verify restoration of a felon’s voting rights either on the Virginia Election Registration Information System, VERIS, or a searchable online site operated by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
About 10 days after the executive order state officials said they had completed the data entry to make the registration process easier, but some registrars are still having issues and in some cases it can take up to two weeks to verify that an ex-felon is now eligible.
Like in Maryland, voting rights groups in Virginia are working hard to get the word out about the rights restoration and get those ex-felons registered.
“Might sound strange to say this but I felt so much possibility now. I felt like I was going to have the chance to participate in all phases of society again, and I was just tickled to death,” Joseph Miler told 13 News Now.
Miller was convicted of grand larceny in 1994 and served two years in prison. He has not been able to vote since then saying that he gave up on the process of rights restoration because it was so overwhelming.
“I sort of the believe in the old saying that you don't really want something until it's taken away from you, and one of the biggest things was the right to vote,” Miller told the station.
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