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A Voting Rights Push: Allowing Felons to Cast Ballots

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© Dominick Reuter for the Wall Street Journal
Dameon Stackhouse, who is on parole after more than a decade behind bars for second-degree robbery, hopes New Jersey changes a voting law and restores the right to vote for felons. (Photo: Dominick Reuter for the Wall Street Journal)

By Arian Campo-Flores, Jon Kamp , The Wall Street Journal.

As the midterm elections draw closer, Dameon Stackhouse is eager to cast a ballot, but he can’t under New Jersey law because he remains on parole after more than a decade behind bars for second-degree robbery.

“We have no say,” said Mr. Stackhouse, a 41-year-old construction worker and student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. “This is one of the worst things you can do to a citizen.”

New Jersey is weighing a measure that would immediately restore voting rights to Mr. Stackhouse and more than 94,000 other state residents with convictions. If passed by the state’s Democratic-controlled Senate and General Assembly, it would be the third U.S. state, along with Maine and Vermont, to allow people to vote even while incarcerated.

From the Northeast to the Deep South, advocates are working to roll back felon-disenfranchisement laws, saying they are unfair because they strip away fundamental democratic rights and disproportionately affect African-Americans. Those who back the restrictions contend people who have committed felonies need to demonstrate they are truly reformed to regain the vote.

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Fights are flaring in several states, including in New York and Mississippi. In 2016, Maryland lawmakers overrode the Republican governor’s veto to enact a measure restoring voting rights for people on parole or probation. The same year, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe of Virginia, a Democrat, issued an executive order re-enfranchising people with felony records.

Florida is in the midst of a two-front battle. Last month, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida officials appealed a federal judge’s ruling that the state’s system for restoring voting rights to former prisoners is unconstitutional, securing a stay of the order. Meanwhile, an initiative on the November ballot in Florida would restore voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million people with felony convictions.

Forty-eight states remove voting rights in some way from people convicted of crimes, but policies vary widely. Some, like Florida and Kentucky, revoke such rights permanently and require petitioning for reinstatement. Others, such as Indiana and Massachusetts, automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison.

During the past few decades, the general trend has been toward reinstating voting rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Still, the ranks of those disenfranchised for felony convictions have increased, reflecting decades when incarceration rates were swelling. Between 1976 and 2016, their number grew more than fourfold to 6.1 million, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates for loosening restrictions.

The election impact of re-enfranchising tens of thousands of new voters in a particular state is unclear. Some researchers have concluded that disenfranchisement laws favor Republicans because those affected are disproportionately minorities, who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

“We can see that perception is clearly at work because Democrats are the ones clearly championing” the efforts, said Hannah Walker, assistant professor of political science and criminal justice at Rutgers.

Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to restore voting rights to about 35,000 people on parole. The Democrat, who is facing a primary challenge from actress and activist Cynthia Nixon said it was wrong to deny voting rights to people who had paid their debt and re-entered society.

“Withholding or delaying voting rights diminishes our democracy,” Mr. Cuomo said at the time.

The move has drawn fire from New York Republicans, including state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, who argued the order circumvents the law. On Facebook, Mr. Flanagan said the order “will allow rapists and murderers to be given voting privileges that they don’t deserve and they shouldn’t have.”

In Mississippi, which has some of the tightest felon-voting restrictions in the U.S., the state is facing two separate legal challenges. One, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that lifetime voting bans—possible for certain crimes in the state—are unconstitutional and that the process for restoring voting rights is arbitrary and discriminatory.

The second challenge, by the Mississippi Center for Justice, argues that the list of crimes subject to disenfranchisement specified in the state’s 1890 constitution—such as theft, perjury and forgery—target African-Americans. “They enshrined a list of crimes that at the time were believed to be black crimes,” said Robert McDuff, lead attorney in the case.

A spokeswoman for Delbert Hosemann, the Republican secretary of state listed in both lawsuits as a defendant, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In New Jersey, advocates are pursuing a legislative route to entirely end the system of felon disenfranchisement. The measure has drawn support from scores of civil-rights and faith groups, as well as other organizations, but its prospects remain uncertain, said Scott Novakowski, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, which is promoting the measure.

Republican state Sen. Gerald Cardinale opposes the measure, saying at the time it was filed that for people who commit felonies, losing voting rights is “part of the risk they assume when they break the law.”

“I’m excited” about the bill, said Mr. Stackhouse, who also is trying to win an early end to his parole. “Let’s fight to stop this nonsense.”

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