While the U.S. Supreme Court regaled us with several politically charged and historically significant opinions on constitutional rights as it neared the end of its session last month — Maryland's Peace Cross will stay, as will political gerrymandering which now can't be touched by federal judges, but racial gerrymandering is still a no-no, the citizenship question proposed for the 2020 Census form is gone (or maybe not), “scandalous” and “immoral” trademarks are now a go — Congressional Democrats took up another right earlier this year that is equally or more important than what the nine justices delivered in an astonishing year of high court opinions: restoration of voting rights to citizens convicted of a felony.
Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, introduced the Democracy Restoration Act of 2019 (SB 1068) to restore the right to vote in federal elections to convicted felons after they've been released from prison. While the Senate bill has yet to get a hearing, the House Democrats earlier passed the For the People Act (HR 1) that contained a similar provision. Lest one think this is a purely partisan issue, remember that former Republican governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia and a referendum in Florida have taken on this issue on the side of restoring at least some voting rights. Back in 2016, the Maryland General Assembly overrode a Gov. Larry Hogan (R) veto to restore citizens' rights automatically upon release from prison. Now at least 16 states and the District of Columbia do it that way or don't disenfranchise to begin with.
In fact, the Cardin bill and HR 1 build on the success of last November's Florida referendum in which almost two-thirds of voters agreed to restore voting rights to up to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated citizens. They also follow in the footsteps of the bipartisan First Step Act signed into law by President Donald Trump in December which committed to law a host of other federal prison and prisoner rights reforms.
And while all that has happened, most states still completely or partially disenfranchise voters with convicted felonies long after they've paid their debt to society. It's estimated that in 2016, 6.1 million U.S. citizens, or about 1 in 40 adults, could not vote as a result of a conviction. Astonishingly, only 22% of those were still sitting in prison. Twelve of the 34 states that still disenfranchise prisoners and former prisoners, do so for life. And while hard to believe, several states disenfranchise for certain misdemeanor convictions.
“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allow the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions,” Cardin said in an April 9 press release announcing the details of the then recently introduced Democracy Restoration Act. “Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship. Under our constitution, there is no legitimate justification for denying people who have paid their dues from having a voice in our democracy.”
Cardin has it right. Erasing people from the voter rolls for convictions on criminal infractions while they are incarcerated is certainly acceptable. Keeping them from the voting booth after they've served their time is not only undemocratic but patently counterproductive to rehabilitation, to say someone can no longer participate in what is one of the most basic tenets of civic participation.
Besides, the giving of a second — and third, and more — chance is one of the quintessential American values to which we should all aspire.