WASHINGTON D.C.— Maryland Senator Ben Cardin introduced legislation to the House of Representatives that would restore voting rights to people released from jail.
The bill, called the Democracy Restoration Act of 2019, was introduced on April 9 and received unanimous Democratic support in the House of Representatives. The legislation is designed to give formerly incarcerated individuals the right to vote again in federal elections after they have completed their sentence.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016, prisons reported 1.45 million people who were sentenced to a serve a year of time or more.
Cardin’s office reports about 6.1 million citizens were denied the right to vote in 2016 as a result of a conviction.
“The United States is one of the few western democracies that allows for the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions,” Cardin said. “Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship. Under our constitution, there is no legitimate justification for denying people who have paid their dues from having a voice in our democracy.”
34 states continue to deny voting rights to formerly incarcerated people through restrictive voting laws. But 16 states already have their own legislation on the books that restores voting rights upon one’s release.
“Laws that aim to disenfranchise people based on criminal records are a Jim Crow era relic that has no place in our democracy,” said Sonia Gill who serves as senior legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU. “The Democracy Restoration Act would rightfully restore to reentering citizens the most basic tenant of civic participation, the right to vote.”
Up until late 2018, Florida was one state that had very restrictive regulations on voting rights for people with criminal records. According to reports by the Washington Post, these restrictive laws came to be in the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction in an effort to suppress the African American vote.
But, in November 2018, Florida voters approved an amendment that restored the right to vote to 1.4 million residents with past felony convictions. The law, however, still excludes individuals convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses even after they have completed their sentence, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
According to Cardin’s office, before passing the constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights in Florida, about seven percent of Florida’s total population was disenfranchised from voting. States like Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky and Tennessee all have similar levels of disenfranchised voters.
The Democracy Restoration Act of 2019 is meant to build on Florida’s success and continue work towards criminal justice reform.
Cardin’s Democracy Restoration Act has been endorsed by a number of civil rights, criminal justice and faith-based organizations including the ACLU, Brennan Center for Justice and the Sentencing Project along with 40 other organizations that also work towards advancing criminal justice reform.
“The Democracy Restoration Act sends a powerful message to the millions of people disenfranchised because of their criminal records: you will not be locked out of our democracy. Our nation was built on second chances and this bill gives those who’ve served their time a pathway back to participating in civic life,” said Myrna Perez, who serves as the deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s democracy program.
Voting laws that bolster the disenfranchisement of voters have a disproportionate impact on people of color, according to Cardin’s office.
“As of 2016, more than 7 percent of the voting age African-American population, or 2,200,000 African Americans were disenfranchised. One out of every 13 or 7.4 percent of African-Americans were disenfranchised as compared with 1.8 percent of individuals of other race,” Cardin’s office reports.
And in states with restrictive voting laws like Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia, more than one in five African Americans were unable to vote in the 2016 election because of prior convictions.
As it is written the law highlights the injustice of restrictive voting rights for people who have served their time. It includes statistical research into restrictive voting laws and the ways they disproportionately affect minorities.
The law also mandates that those who will have their voting rights restored must be notified by the state in writing. It also orders that state officials must provide individuals with all the necessary materials needed to vote in an election.
The bill must now pass in the Senate before it can be ratified by the president.