A mistake Rynn Young made decades ago, when he was just a teenager, cost him the right to vote.
Twenty-one years after his drug possession conviction, he got his ballot back when newly elected Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order last month restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons after release.
“It’s been a very long time coming,” Young said at the signing ceremony in Frankfort, Kentucky, surrounded by civil rights leaders. “I’ve never had the right to vote. My words have always fallen on deaf ears … I appreciate the opportunity for a second chance, just to be heard.”
This was one of Beshear’s first acts as governor. Two days earlier, he announced at his inauguration that he would restore the right to vote for 140,000 “men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now.” His Christian faith, he said, teaches him forgiveness.
“They deserve to participate in our great democracy,” he told the inaugural crowd in front of the state Capitol in Frankfort.
Kentucky joined 17 other states that have restored voting rights over the past several decades to felons after they leave prison. In every state except Maine and Vermont, felons are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban remains for a certain period (Iowa has a lifetime ban, unless reversed by the governor) after they are released, disenfranchising millions of people.
In the past year, however, six states implemented measures restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions.
This shift is part of a broader reaction against the tough-on-crime policies of the 1980s and 1990s. Across the political spectrum, more people are questioning the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and backing anti-recidivism efforts.
“The vast majority of people disenfranchised live in our communities, own homes and pay taxes,” said Sarah Shannon, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Georgia who has studied the impact of reinstating voting rights to felons. “They’re not behind bars. So, what is it that’s stopping us from allowing those folks from fully participating in our democracy?”
Still, strong opposition remains from lawmakers and election integrity advocates who say felons made a choice and must live with the consequences. Other opponents say these measures are ploys by Democrats to gain more voters, a charge Democrats deny.
Long Time Coming
For some former convicts, activists and lawmakers, last year’s success was the culmination of years of effort. In New Jersey, for example, Democratic state Rep. Shavonda Sumter has lobbied her colleagues since she took office in 2012, slowly building an appetite for action.
In December, New Jersey enfranchised people with felony convictions. The measure, which applies to people who leave prison but are still on parole or probation, restored the voting rights of 80,000 people.
Sumter, who sponsored the measure, told Stateline she is proud to have changed a policy that was “inherently, systematically wrong.” African Americans are far more likely to be incarcerated and disenfranchised in New Jersey than residents of other races, according to data compiled by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal justice nonprofit.
“When we start carving people out just because of a crime they committed that had nothing to do with voting, we start stripping them of humanity,” Sumter said.
She hopes that on Election Day in November, she can walk around her hometown of Paterson, handing out “I Voted” stickers, and not have disenfranchised constituents tell her they can’t accept one.
But Republican state Rep. Hal Wirths, who previously served on a New Jersey parole board, voted against the measure. He says those on parole or probation haven’t yet served their sentences and shouldn’t be allowed to vote until they do. Around 20 states allow felons to re-register to vote after their parole or probation period and after they’ve paid any fines.
“I believe in everyone getting second chances,” Wirths said. “We all make mistakes. The main thing here is that they haven’t finished their sentences yet.”
In California and Iowa, measures to restore voting rights to felons made it through one legislative chamber but stalled in the other amid disagreement over whether to include felons with murder or rape convictions. Legislation in New Mexico stalled after making it out of committee, while measures in six other states didn’t progress.