Restoring the rights of criminals is a rare change in bipartisan voting
LINCOLN, Nebraska (AP) — T. J. King had candidates and reasons to support, but he failed to vote in Nebraska’s latest election.
A communications specialist for the Nebraska AIDS Project, King came out of probation in August after serving time for drugs and theft. In many states, he could vote in the November general election, but in Nebraska, it requires a two-year wait after serving a felony sentence before someone can register.
King’s first chance to vote will be in the 2024 presidential election season, unless a legislative proposal introduced in January to remove the two-year requirement passes and becomes law. This will likely change the timing of the restoration of voting rights for King and thousands of other Nebraska residents.
Voting, as King said in an interview, brings back “a little of your power and a little of your voice. The ability to vote, to have a voice in what happens in your society, in your state, is extremely important.”
Restoring the enfranchisement of former criminals received nationwide attention after Florida lawmakers weakened a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new electoral police force championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrested 20 former criminals. Some of them said they were confused by the arrests because they were allowed to register to vote.
Such attempts to dissuade former criminals from voting seem to be the exception among states, even as some Republican-led states continue to restrict access to the vote in other ways.
At least 14 states have submitted proposals this year to restore voting rights, according to the Brennan Justice Center. Oregon’s proposal would allow felons to vote in custody. Tennessee’s bill would automatically restore voting rights after serving a sentence, except for a small group of crimes. Texas legislation will return voting rights to those on probation or parole.
In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed a bill on Friday restoring the right to vote to convicted felons as soon as they get out of jail. A bill passing through the New Mexico Legislature would do the same.
“Restoring voting rights is really an issue where we’re seeing bipartisan momentum,” said Patrick Berry, Democracy Program Advisor at the Brennan Center.
More than 4.6 million people in the United States are disenfranchised due to criminal convictions, according to the draft judgment, which looks into the matter and advocates restoring voting rights to former felons.
Laws vary by state depending on clemency requirements, payment of fines, fees, and alimony, and when a sentence (including probation and parole) is considered to be carried out. The impact falls disproportionately on people of color, especially black citizens, who make up one-third of the entire disenfranchised population, making up about 12% of the total population.
Nearly 18,000 people in Nebraska are unable to vote due to felony convictions, Sentencing Project advocacy director Nicole Porter said. This includes 7,072 who are subject to the two-year wait requirement and are currently unable to vote. The rest did not complete their full sentences.
Steve Smith of Civic Nebraska, part of the grand coalition of groups supporting the measure, said the wait creates a group of taxpayers who cannot choose their representatives.
“You’re dead from a civic standpoint and you can’t vote for the people who levy these taxes,” he said.
A bill that would eliminate the wait would change the 2005 law. Prior to this, criminal offenses in Nebraska in most cases resulted in a lifetime ban from voting.
At the time, Nebraska was in step with other states. Now, while several states require waiting times for specific offenses or determine the completion of a sentence, including things like fines and restitution, Nebraska is the only one requiring a general waiting period beyond jail time and release from parole or probation, Margaret said. Love, founding co-author and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which maintains a 50-state recovery database.
The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Senator Justin Wayne, said he went from house to house in his first election in 2016 and was told by potential voters they couldn’t vote. According to him, in many respects the reason was confusion with the waiting period for the law.
He introduced bills several times to end the waiting period and came close to success in 2017 when a bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by then-Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Wayne, who represents Omaha’s large minority areas, said re-engaging people in the voting process is integral to a successful re-entry. His bill moved last week from committee to the full legislature.
“When people get out of our system, they should feel involved in their community, and the best way for a person to feel involved 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 Trustees, was the only one of nearly 20 witnesses to testify on Wayne’s bill who dissented. Wilcot emphasized that she was speaking as a private individual and not on behalf of the university.
“I do think that, hopefully, the waiting period reinforces the fact that voting is something special, and I hope that it will be part of what a person will consider if they are tempted to break the law again,” she said.
Three witnesses with criminal records who spoke in favor of the law stated in later interviews that the waiting period was not a deterrent to future crimes, but rather a barrier to those who had served their sentences.
King, 51, has struggled with addiction for years and spent five years in prison after being convicted of possession of the party drug ecstasy and stealing by deception. The trial period ended in August last year.
King works in the HIV/AIDS field and volunteers for various organizations, but said voting is still the most direct way to get involved and burst into tears when he said he couldn’t vote.
“I felt so hopeless and helpless that my voice was not heard in the last election,” King said. “Here in Nebraska, there’s been a lot of things up for a vote that’s reflected in a lot of the things that I stand for.”
Demetrius Gatson is among more than 10,000 people in Nebraska who are not eligible to vote because they haven’t finished their sentences. Due to her probation, she will have to wait until 2030 to vote.
After her release in 2018, she completed her degrees and worked in various volunteer positions. Now 48, Gatson has started her own non-profit organization and is the executive director of QUEENS Butterfly House, a refuge for women trying to reintegrate into society.
For the people she works with, being able to register to vote gives a sense of acceptance, she says, especially when there are so many barriers to where they can live, where they can work and who they can communicate with.
Gatson said there are important 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.”
Stephen Scott, 33, was released on parole in 2015 after serving more than four years on assault and other charges. After his release, he was repeatedly denied an apartment, he only got a job because his boss knew him, and his pursuit of a degree was thwarted after his record came to light.
He is now married with two small children and owns his own business, a physical rehabilitation and sports training center. He also regained the right to vote and voted for Republican candidates in his first election, including in 2020. He sees the two-year waiting period as one link in a long chain of barriers for those trying to re-enter society.
“You can’t harm society by voting,” he said. “You can only help.
Associated Press contributor Margery Beck contributed to this report.
Associated Press coverage of the race and voting receives support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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