Measures to Expand and Balance U.S. Electorate Gain Traction in State Legislatures

by Erin Ferns and Donald Wine II

For the past few years, there has been a push by voting rights advocates to expand and balance the electorate in the United States.  Finally, measures to help enfranchise some of the nation's least represented Americans are moving forward in several states. This past week, five states advanced bills to restore the voting rights of citizens convicted of felonies, while four states moved bills designed to facilitate voter participation among young citizens. This trend in election reform is a step in the right direction, which more states should take notice of and consider in the near future.

Voting Rights Restoration

Today, 48 states disenfranchise convicted felons at some point during incarceration, probation, or parole, resulting in the loss of voting rights for about 5.3 million Americans, according to research and advocacy group the Sentencing Project. "This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system, resulting in an estimated 13% of Black men unable to vote," the group reports. The inconsistency of felony re-enfranchisement policies among the 50 states creates confusion, not only among former offenders who wish to regain the right to vote, but also the very officials charged with implementing the laws.

Lawmakers in Georgia, Hawaii, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Washington each moved bills last week to restore the voting rights of former felons.. Notably, a Washington bill restoring the voting rights of felons "after they're released from state custody, including the completion of any parole or probation" was recently approved by the House, according to an Associated Press report.

"Supporters of the bill - all Democrats - said the state's present system amounts to a poll tax because people who have turned their lives around but can't afford to pay court fines are kept from voting," as current law requires all court-ordered fines to be paid before restoring voting rights, the AP reports. "Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, said the measure also would help state elections officials by clearing up a gray area: Under current law, it is difficult to determine whether a felon who is no longer in state custody has legally restored his voting rights."

The Washington bill is a small step closer to voting rights advocates' goal of automatic post-incarceration restoration of rights, whereby citizens who are released from prison would be immediately eligible to vote while on probation and parole. "These citizens would be permitted to register in precisely the same way as other eligible citizens, without submission of special paperwork," according to a 2008 report by Erika Wood of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.

"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."

The actions taken by these states to facilitate the restoration of the voting rights of former felons upon release from prison is one that should be duplicated by the other states that do not currently offer automatic restoration of rights upon release from incarceration.  A truly representative electorate is one that allows everyone to partake in the process.  Allowing former felons to register to vote upon the end of their prison terms will finally empower a segment of the U.S. population that has been underrepresented for years.

Youth Voter Participation Update

Last week, Project Vote blogged on progressing election reforms that focus on mobilizing young citizens outside of the college campus - primarily high school students and young minorities who make up a large portion of the untapped youth voting group. With the introduction of numerous bills to lower the voter registration age, incorporate civic engagement in the high school curriculum, and provide voter registration opportunities this year, a few have been gaining serious momentum in the last week.

Most notably, Rhode Island may join the majority of states in allowing 16 and 17 year olds to preregister to vote with the passage of HB 5005 from the House. Among three states to introduce such bills this year, Rhode Island is the only one to pass its preregistration bill after a hearing last week. Also noteworthy, bills focusing on voter registration on high school campuses in New Jersey (AB 2752/S 254) and Kentucky (HB 155) - both adopted by the houses- have advanced in the senates.

Youth voter advocates argue that citizens who become politically engaged at a young age become lifelong voters, bringing more people into the voting process at an earlier age and maintaining that involvement throughout their adult years.  These progressing bills would help young facilitate and institutionalize voter engagement by making it a part of the school curriculum and permitting younger citizens to take steps towards becoming part of the democratic process through preregistration.  Allowing youths to preregister when they are 16 or 17--say, in conjunction with receiving their drivers' licenses--would also move us one more step towards universal voter registration, as youths would learn the process of registration and will know how to keep their registration current as they move on to college or move out of their childhood homes into adulthood.

With an estimated 52 percent of the youth electorate turning out to vote last year, there is still room to grow. As we reported last week, "The youth electorate continues to lag behind the general electorate, a problem that only perpetuates the representational bias in our democracy. The real issue of voter access should be a focal point for lawmakers and advocates who want to encourage all young citizens, beyond the college campus, to let their voices be heard."

Whether discussing automatic restoration of voting rights or lowering of the voting age, one theme remains the same:  voting rights should be accessible and consistent for all citizens. With more than five million citizens losing voting rights due to felony convictions and 25 million voting eligible "college age" 18-24 year old citizens missing out on voter registration opportunities that are too focused on college campuses, a huge chunk of the eligible voting population is being left out of the electoral process.  As these bills indicate, it is time for states to finally take action in creating a more balanced, participatory electorate.

To monitor youth voting legislation, visit www.electionlegislation.org or subscribe to the weekly Election Legislation digest, featuring election bills in all 50 states, by emailing Erin Ferns at eferns [at] projectvote.org.

Tags: election reform, felon, Georgia, Hawaii, high school, Kentucky, legislation, Minnesota, Project Vote, Rhode Island, tennessee, voter registration, Voting Rights, Washington, youth (all tags)

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