The Nebraska unicameral passed LB75 this week. This was a priority bill from State Senator Justin Wayne. This bill would eliminate the 2 year waiting period for felons in Nebraska to be able to vote in Nebraska. Prior to 2005, felons were required to apply for a pardon from the State of Nebraska Board of Pardons. Based on the report for the Vote Nebraska Initiative Report, they found that “[the] process can be so lengthy and overwhelming, that many ex-offenders do not apply for a pardon.” At the time of the report, they estimated that 9,427 Nebraskans were disenfranchised based on their felony convictions. According to a 2003 study, 13% of the Latino population was ineligible to vote due to disenfranchisement. In a 1998 study from Demos, they found that 10.2% of African American men in Nebraska were disenfranchised. Seantor DiAnna Schimek introduced LB 53 in 2005 to restore the rights of felons to be able to vote.
The bill was passed with a supermajority able to withstand a gubeneratorial veto. However, despite not having a single witness in opposition to the bill in testimony, there was a compromise made to get out of committee. The compromise would only restore a felon’s right to vote after a two year waiting period. Despite it being a decade after this bill was signed into law the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska found that only half of the counties in Nebraska were able to provide the correct information that a former felon could register to vote after two years. Since the ACLU’s report came out in 2016, the Nebraska Secretary of State has included a FAQ that includes the language that you can register to vote if it has been two years or more.
The ACLU ultimately concludes in their report that the simplest way to make sure these ex-felons can vote is to automatically reinstate the right to vote at the conclusion of the sentence. They argue that the rules of reinstating after 2 years serves as de facto disenfranchisement if not all the counties know the actual rules.
Why it matters
But why do we care if ex-felons get their civil rights restored? Throughout the country, more than 6 million Americans are unable to vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Going further, the Brennan Center for Justice notes that one in every 13 voting-age African Americans have lost their right to vote.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued in a 2002 Senate Debate that “states have a significant interest in reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract that forms the foundation of representative democracy…those who break our laws should not dilute the votes of law-abiding citizens.” This argument is premised on the idea that voting is a privilege rather than a right. There are a number of people who advance this argument who really believe that voting should be only held by a select few. This is undermined by civil rights, women’s suffrage, etc. that have been fought for the last 140 years. Not to mention, the Constitution has generally expanded the right to vote since the Constitution was adopted. The authors of various amendments have done quite a bit of work to expand the right to vote and to take down previous impediments to vote. There are 4 Amendments added to the Constitution that expanded the right to votes, covering the race, gender, and age while also prohibiting poll taxes.
The goal of these Amendments have been to greatly expand who can vote in elections and to give protection for those people. There is not an affirmative right in the Constitution to vote; however, the right to vote is mentioned multiple times in the Constitution as one can see if he looks at the text of the amendments. The idea of voting as a privilege is simply incompatible with our Constitution.
One of the equalizing and underlying principles of our society is the idea of “one person, one vote.” Regardless of how much money you may have or your status in society, your vote is just as equal as any other person’s vote. Denying franchise to ex-felons undermines this principle. As the Brennan Center for Justice writes “a strong, vibrant democracy requires the broadest possible base of voter participation, across all sectors of society.”
When prisoners leave prison, we are hopeful that they will reintegrate themselves into society. We ask them to clean up their lives, to find a job, to work to become productive citizens. We have long held, in our country, that we are a country of second chances for those willing to change. Christy Visher and Jeremy Travis found that the identity of a responsible citizen is important to proper rehabilitation into an ex-prisoner’s new life. The Brennan Center for Justice noted that ex-prisoners viewed themselves as not full citizens until they had their rights to vote had been given back to them.
Revoking the right to vote from felons has a ripple effect on urban and minority communities. Many children learn their civic engagement from their parents. The parents might take their children to vote or watch political news together. Going further, parents can provide information such as how to register to vote, how easy it is to vote, and where to vote. According to Eric Plutzer in Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood, “the parent’s political participation had the greatest effect on the child’s initial decision to vote.” Plutzer goes forward to argue that voters and non-voters develop habits that help determine whether or not they will vote based on habits. By preventing ex-felons from being able to vote, we are robbing future generations from being able to form good civic habits and to develop “inertia” to vote in future elections. This lack of inertia hurts families and communities alike. As young voters are unlikely to form the habits to vote, the community loses political power and their voice in the political process.
Beyond that, with the loss of political voice and power, the impact of ex-felons losing their right to vote can be seen on who will run for office. One of the biggest factors in someone running for office, is the belief that she can win an election. In a 2013 article, Luke Keele, Paru Shah, Ismail White, and Kristine Kay note that “serious black candidates do not enter races where they expect to lose.” They study whether or not the race of a candidate impacts the turnout rate. In their research of who will run as a candidate, they write “black candidates for mayor might not only attempt to run in places with large African American populations, but might also choose to run in places with above average turnout in that black population.” The disenfranchisement of ex-felons disproportionately affect the black population and as a result may prevent strong black candidates from running for office. Not only may it prevent some black candidates from running, it may be an impact on whoever does run. People bemoan the idea of bad candidates running for office but one of the many ways that we can push back and have better candidates is to give back the right to vote for ex-felons.
The path forward
LB75 has passed the Nebraska Unicameral with a vote of 27-13. Governor Pete Ricketts has announced that he will not sign the bill into law. If he does not veto the bill within 5 days, the bill will have the same effect as if he does sign the bill. If the bill is vetoed, there are three state senators who will need to vote to override the veto, assuming nobody defects. This may be problematic as Governor Ricketts has handpicked challengers to those who have voted to override his vetoes in the past. According to Nebraskans for Civic Reform, there are 7,069 Nebraskans who have completed their sentences and are disenfranchised who will receive their civil rights back if the bill becomes law. If you have not done so already, I urge you to contact your Unicameral representative to ask for their support.
Nebraska is certainly not the most onerous of the stats out there to prevent ex-felons from voting. Governor Terry McAuliffe has restored the rights of thousands of ex-felons in Virginia. The biggest offender of this type of law seems to be in Florida, where 1 in 5 African Americans are disenfranchised. 1.6 million Floridians are denied their rights. This is the highest rate in the country. Floridians are collecting signatures to put this issue on the ballot as a constitutional amendment. Governor Steve Beshear of Kentucky signed an executive order giving the right to vote back to thousands of ex-felons. Matt Bevin signed an executive order one month later reversing this decision. Notably Republican Senator Rand Paul does support restoring of the rights of ex-felons. The Democracy Restoration Act was introduced in 2016 by Rep. John Conyers do do this on a federal level. I have not seen it introduced in this session of Congress and will update as soon as I do. If you are interested in this issue, I do urge you to contact your representative to support similar bills going forward.