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Nearly half the states in the U.S. now allow people previously convicted of felonies to vote.
Last week, thousands of people with felony convictions regained the right to vote in New Mexico, the latest in a growing number of states seeking to reintegrate residents into society by allowing them to participate in elections upon leaving prison.
New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a wide-reaching voting rights package into law late last month. The measure also includes broader mail-in ballot access for Native Americans, expands same-day voter registration and adds new voting rights for people with felony convictions.
New Mexico’s new law ends the practice of canceling a person’s voter registration upon their felony conviction, scraps a requirement that people finish probation or parole before being allowed to vote and gives exiting inmates the opportunity to register to vote upon leaving prison.
New Mexico now has a streamlined system, free of bureaucratic hurdles, to ensure that once someone leaves incarceration, they can exercise their voting rights, said Democratic state Sen. Katy Duhigg, who supported the legislation. Every Republican voted against the bill, with many arguing that it would compromise the integrity of elections.
“The more someone has a say in their community, the more invested they are in the community, the more likely they’re going to be a productive member of that community,” Duhigg told Stateline after the bill-signing ceremony in Santa Fe. “Re-enfranchising folks who are leaving incarceration is a really important and effective way to reduce recidivism.”
Duhigg also pointed to the racist roots of the policy to disenfranchise people with felony convictions, which originally targeted newly emancipated Black people in the late 1800s.
New Mexico, along with Minnesota, are the most recent states to follow 21 others in allowing people previously convicted of felonies to vote upon leaving prison. Most of those states have done so in the past two decades.
By denying the vote to people with felony convictions and adding waiting periods or requiring that all fines be paid, states are denying people their rights as citizens, said Reggie Thedford, deputy political director for Stand Up America, a grassroots organization fighting for these bills.
“Citizenship is not stripped away at the prison gates, and neither should the right to vote,” he said.
Lawmakers in 10 additional states are currently debating measures that would allow people leaving prison to vote, according to a count by the Voting Rights Lab. Bills in Mississippi, Virginia and West Virginia failed this session.
Lawmakers in California, Illinois, Oregon and five other states are considering legislation that would give full voting rights to people with felony convictions, even allowing them to vote in prison.
Although there is bipartisan support for these measures in many states, some Republicans have opposed the bills over concerns for victims’ rights and fairness. Opponents argue that people with felony convictions should serve their sentences, pay all fines and fees and complete parole and probation periods before being allowed to vote. Some lawmakers want to create higher barriers to enfranchisement.
“When you commit a crime, you are violating the rights of another individual,” said Wisconsin state Rep. Shae Sortwell, a Republican who is sponsoring legislation that would require people with felony convictions to pay all fees before regaining their voting privileges. “Once the victim’s rights have been restored, then we talk about restoring the rights of the convicted individual.”
Nationally, 4.6 million Americans are locked out of the democratic process because of laws targeting people with felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for lifting state voting restrictions.
Fourteen states allow ballot access after parole or probation, while six states require all financial debts to be paid. In a handful of other states, it’s up to the governor to decide whether someone with a felony conviction can vote again. In the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote.
In Minnesota last month, 55,000 residents regained the right to vote after Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed a measure that allows people to register to vote after they leave prison for committing felonies. Previously, people had to complete parole before being allowed to vote. The legislature passed the measure mostly along party lines, with three Republicans in the legislature voting for the measure.
Democratic lawmakers in Minnesota have attempted to overturn the state’s ban on voting while on parole for the past two decades. Every session has been a “missed opportunity” to “correct the historical wrongs” of a policy that disproportionately impacts people of color, especially Black and Native American residents, said Democratic state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, the bill’s sponsor.
“Why, if you’ve got a law-abiding individual back in the community, should they be unable to vote?” he asked Stateline in an interview. “When they’re engaged in the community and active in the electoral process, they’re less likely to have recidivism. It doesn’t make sense to be punitive.”
While Frazier and his Democratic colleagues argued that once out of prison, people who are no longer a threat to society should not be treated as “less than,” some Republican legislators argued that people with felony convictions should finish serving their sentences before regaining the right to vote.
Republicans, including state Sen. Warren Limmer, offered amendments to make exceptions for people convicted of violent crimes or voter fraud—proposals that Democratic majorities in the legislature rejected. Another rejected Republican amendment called for a two-year waiting period after a prison sentence before people could reregister to vote.
“Felonies are serious crimes that should require serious consequences,” Limmer said in an emailed statement. “Probation is a time when criminals are to prove they can adjust to their freedom without reverting to former criminal activity.”
Other states may join Minnesota and New Mexico this session in easing voting access to people with felony records, including conservative states such as Kentucky and Nebraska.
In 2017, the Republican-led Nebraska legislature passed a bipartisan bill that would have removed a requirement that people with felonies wait two years after completing their sentences before they can register to vote. But then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Republican, vetoed the measure over constitutional concerns.
Six years later, lawmakers are trying again to scrap the two-year waiting period. Advocates for the measure are confident it can pass this session.
“Overwhelmingly, people on the left, right and middle say this is just something we’ve got to do,” said Steve Smith, director of communications for Civic Nebraska, a nonpartisan organization that promotes civic engagement and voting rights.
While there is movement on bills that seek to expand ballot access for people with felony convictions, some state lawmakers want to move in the other direction.
One bill in Indiana would add a 10-year waiting period for any person convicted of felony voter fraud. The bill passed out of the House in February and is currently in a Senate committee.
In Wisconsin, Sortwell said it is “nonsensical” to allow people convicted of felonies to be able to vote when they have not paid their debt to society in full—including fines.
“Are you OK with prisoners having their Second Amendment rights restored in there?” he added.
In Virginia, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin changed the process through which several of his predecessors—Democrats and Republicans—automatically restored the voting rights for hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions who completed their sentences. Instead, Youngkin will consider each case individually, according to Republican Secretary of the Commonwealth Kay Coles James.
In a March letter to a state senator, James said Youngkin “firmly believes in the importance of second chances for formerly incarcerated individuals as they look to become active members of their community and citizenry.”
In some states that have expanded ballot access to former felons over the past decade, Republican leaders have sought to roll back those rights.
In Florida, for example, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis successfully pushed for new laws requiring that former felons pay all fines and fees before getting their voting rights back. DeSantis also launched an election police force that targets ineligible voters. Voting rights groups have lambasted both measures.
Florida has a “broken system,” said Desmond Meade, executive director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which led the 2018 ballot initiative fight to restore voting rights for 1.4 million Floridians convicted of non-violent felonies.
While disappointing, the governor’s action has inspired many people to act, Meade added. Since DeSantis signed the new law on fines, Meade’s group has raised $30 million from 90,000 Americans to pay off those fines so people could vote.
“One thing I know is that the more people we get to participate in democracy, the more vibrant our democracy becomes,” he said. “And that’s good for everyone.”