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Cross-Posted at Project Vote's Voting Matter's Blog

Weekly Voting Rights News Update

by Erin Ferns

Hundreds of thousands of former felons may regain their voting rights in two of the country's most restrictive states this year. As predicted last month, disenfranchisement reform is an election issue that is quietly gaining momentum as policymakers in Virginia and Kentucky battle for restoration of voting rights.

The two states are currently the only states in the nation that permanently disenfranchise all felony offenders. Virginia, however, has permitted certain former felons to apply for restoration, which then has to be approved by the governor, according to the Virginian Pilot last week. With less than 10,000 Virginians having regained voting rights under the last four governorships and at least 297,901 still disenfranchised, it appears more has to be done. But it appears this will not be accomplished without a fight.

Last week, the Virginia Senate passed one measure and defeated another that would restore voting rights, the Pilot reported. Constitutional amendment SJ 273, a measure that would give the General Assembly "constitutional power to restore voting rights to non-violent felons," is now in the House. However, an arguably more effective measure "that would automatically restore voting rights once a felon completes their sentence and subsequent parole or probation" died on a 19-19 vote. "Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who presides in the Senate, broke the tie and voted against it."

Nationally, more than five million people are not allowed to vote as a result of a past felony conviction. Policies on felony re-enfranchisement among the 50 states are so inconsistent as to create confusion among, not only those former offenders who wish to regain the right to vote, but also the very officials charged with implementing the laws. Fair and consistent felony re-enfranchisement laws can contribute to the rehabilitation process, and reduce the harmful impact on low-income and minority communities where a disproportionately high number of individuals are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. With that, voting rights advocates are pushing for automatic post-incarceration restoration of voting rights, as we reported in last month's blog entry.

Under a system of automatic post-incarceration restoration of rights, "citizens released from prison would be immediately eligible to vote while on probation and parole, as are those who are sentenced to probation without serving any time in prison," according to a 2008 report by Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. "These citizens would be permitted to register in precisely the same way as other eligible citizens, without submission of special paperwork."

"Restoring the right to vote to ex-offenders is an integral aspect of reintegration into society," according to a 2007 Project Vote report, which notes a disproportionate over-representation of low-income and minority citizens in the criminal justice system. "Consistent policies are necessary to prevent large-scale disenfranchisement not only of the ex-offenders themselves, but also of the communities to which they belong. Society as a whole benefits when a representative government truly represents all its citizens."

While the Virginia bill has support from both parties, it "must travel a difficult path to become law," the Pilot reports. "The first step is being approved by the Republican-controlled House of Delegates that has already killed similar proposals this year."

Another fight is expected in Kentucky, where as many as 186,000 former felons may be able to vote again if House Bill 70 "gets the support it needs from lawmakers," according to local broadcast news outlet, WHAS 11. The bill would amend state law that permanently disenfranchises all felony offenders to restore voting rights after completion of sentence. The bill is now in the Senate.

To monitor the progress of Virginia and Kentucky's felon voting rights bills, visit www.ElectionLegislation.org and sign up for the Election Legislation e-Digest by emailing a subscription request to eferns(at)projectvote.org.

Quick Links:

Statistics by State. Sentencing Project.

In Other News:

Ads against same-day voter registration hit TV - Santa Fe New Mexican
A Las Cruces political action committee is running ads on cable television warning viewers that bills allowing same-day voter registration would lead to vote fraud, including out-of-state people pouring in to cancel the vote of New Mexican citizens.
Voter ID bill referred to full Senate - Marshall News Messenger [Texas]
The controversial voter identification bill that triggered a Senate rules fight last month on Tuesday was referred directly to the full Senate for a vote.

Voter ID law fails to pass House committee – Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — A Minnesota House panel has defeated a proposal to require voters to show photo ID before casting a ballot.

Originally posted to Project Vote on Wed Feb 18, 2009 at 06:45 PM PST.

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