Colorado and Nevada significantly narrow felony disenfranchisement
Colorado and Nevada adopted new laws that will restore people’s voting rights as soon as they are released from incarceration, as opposed to doing so at later stages of the legal system (if ever).
These reforms deal a blow to a system that excludes and marginalizes millions of U.S. citizens, disproportionately African American, across the country. They are the latest successes in the nationwide movement to confront felony disenfranchisement. The movement has upended the voting rights debate by focusing widespread attention on bolder and more democratic reforms than we have come to expect, whether ones like Colorado and Nevada or ones that go further.
Prior to this week, just one state had passed a law to enfranchise people upon their release over the last decade (Maryland in 2016). Colorado and Nevada did this within a day of one another.
Nevada had some of the country’s harshest statutes as one of 12 states where some people could not vote even after completing their sentence. The new law enfranchises people who have completed their sentence (as Florida’s Amendment 4 mostly did). But it also goes further by enfranchising people who are on probation and on parole. Approximately 75,000 Nevadans were disenfranchised in 2016 for reasons that will no longer exist in 2020, according to a Sentencing Project report; that’s more than 3 percent of the voting-age population. Twenty-three percent were Black, even though African Americans represent only 8 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
Colorado’s new law reaches the same point through a smaller jump. The state disenfranchised people who are in prison and on parole; this reform ends the latter. There were approximately 9,000 Coloradoans disenfranchised while on parole in 2016. Of those, 17 percent were African American, compared to 4 percent of the state’s voting-age population.
A changing landscape
Neither state abolished felony disenfranchisement, however. People will remain barred from voting while incarcerated, unlike in Maine and Vermont, which have never disenfranchised people based on a criminal conviction. From Hawaii to New Mexico, activists are organizing at the state level to emulate Maine and Vermont and achieve universal suffrage. Voting while incarcerated was also among the demands of last year’s prison strike, and it came to the fore in the presidential campaign when Senator Bernie Sanders stated his support.
No other candidate took Sanders’s position, but most at least embraced the stance that people’s rights should be restored once they are released from incarceration. Listening to these national debates, you would think that this view—that formerly incarcerated people should vote—is the default stance to which the Democratic party has sternly adhered.
But that was far from the case in states before the organizing toward universal suffrage acquired this increased visibility over the last year.
Of the 14 states with a Democratic government, five allow all formerly incarcerated people to vote. Colorado and Nevada will make it seven. But similar bills were killed this year in New Mexico and Washington, and have not advanced so far in Connecticut and New York.
The synchronicity of Colorado and Nevada’s reforms, and the striking intraparty unity around them, makes them appear routine for Democratic legislatures. But that impression underscores the scale of this change. Reforms that until recently pushed the envelope of Democratic governance are more clearly coming into view as compromise measures, which are essential but still removed from universal suffrage.
“Restoring parolees’ voting rights” is an “important first step,” Representative Leslie Herod, who authored Colorado’s new law, told me earlier this month. She also said that “we need to consider restoring voting rights to those incarcerated” because “if anyone should be voting, it’s those who have been most affected by our laws.”
Reforms like Colorado and Nevada’s don’t just expand eligibility. They also clarify it. People involved in the criminal legal system often face a dizzying maze of rules to figure out whether they are entitled to vote, with the potential threat of prosecution looming if they get it wrong. State officials sometimes pointedly refuse to provide information to affected individuals.
Even as it leaves many stripped of the right to vote, enfranchising anyone who is not incarcerated at least makes the situation more straightforward for communities outside the prison walls. “We need a law that is so simple and so clear that you don’t need to get legal advice,” Lonnie Feemster, the Nevada director of the NAACP National Voter Fund, told me in December. That’s a low bar most states still have not crossed.
A full version of this article, with a map of 2019 reforms, is available here.