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News / Nation & World

New focus on effort to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies

Trump's conviction puts spotlight on movement

Published: May 31, 2024, 4:16pm

WASHINGTON — Republican-led states have historically made it difficult for those convicted of a felony to vote or barred it altogether. Now the Republicans’ presumptive nominee for president, who lives in one of those states, is among them.

Donald Trump’s conviction in the New York hush money case puts a spotlight on a wider movement to restore rights that has been gaining momentum in recent years, with the notable exception of Trump’s newly adopted state of Florida and a pair of its Southern neighbors.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 restoring the right to vote for the estimated 1.8 million people in the state who had felony convictions, but the Republican-controlled Legislature watered that down by making the payment of all fines, fees and court costs part of the requirement before voting rights would be restored. That had the effect of making it complex, expensive and risky for people convicted of felonies to try to cast ballots.

It’s unlikely those rules will ensnare Trump, experts say, because he was convicted in New York state, not Florida.

When its residents are convicted of felonies in other states, Florida allows them to vote if they would be allowed to in the state of their conviction. In New York, Democrats passed a law in 2021 allowing people convicted of felonies to vote as long as they’re not in prison. So as long as Trump stays out of a New York prison while he appeals his conviction, he will be allowed to vote in Florida.

If Trump had been convicted in Florida, he likely would have needed intervention from his former Republican presidential primary opponent, Gov. Ron DeSantis, to retain his voting rights. Those who advocate for the rights of people convicted of felonies say they hope Trump’s case convinces the public of the need to make regaining voting rights simple and straightforward.

“We think this highlights the need for a standard for everybody, whether you’re a former president or you’re a citizen who simply wants to participate in voting,” said Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

The movement to let people convicted of felonies vote once they’re done serving their sentence has been growing in recent years and is sometimes the rare issue that generates bipartisan support. Some conservative states have restored voting rights for people convicted of felonies, including recently Nebraska and Oklahoma. Bills are pending in the Democratic-leaning states of Massachusetts and New York.

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Only one state, Virginia, permanently disenfranchises people convicted of felonies. There, the governor must intervene to restore voting rights. Nine others, including Florida, have some form of permanent disenfranchisement unless reinstated by government action, according to research from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

“Generally, the consensus is that people should have the right to vote, especially if they’re living in their community and paying taxes,” said Blair Bowie of the Campaign Legal Center.

The Sentencing Project, which advocates for restoring voting rights, says roughly 4.4 million people remain unable to vote because of past felony convictions, with 1.1 million of those in Florida. But that’s fewer than the roughly 6 million the group estimated a decade ago, a sign of how states have been making it easier for people convicted of felonies to regain their rights.

“Expanding voting rights is popular, it is taking hold across the country,” said Bob Libal, a consultant for the project. “I hope this is a moment when we can address this issue in a serious way, including Florida.”

Bowie said Florida’s intransigence on restoring voting rights may be inspiring other nearby states that also are controlled by Republicans. Tennessee has implemented strict rules making it hard for people convicted of felonies to regain their rights, she said, and Alabama recently expanded the list of crimes for which voting rights can never be restored.

“My fear is Florida gave states permission to roll back,” Bowie said.

Florida’s 2019 legislation adding new requirements to restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies also required those convicted of murder and sex crimes to petition before their rights could be restored, creating even more complications in a legally fraught process.

DeSantis, who signed the law, also created a unit to target “election crimes” in 2021, piggybacking on Trump’s false allegations that voter fraud cost him re-election the previous year. The unit arrested 20 former felons but also highlighted the bewildering process Florida uses to determine whether people convicted of felonies can vote. Several of the defendants said they were confused by the arrests because election officials had allowed them to register to vote.

Felony disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era and mainly targeted Black people, according to experts. The only two states that experts say have never limited voting by people convicted of felonies, even in prison — Maine and Vermont — are two of the whitest in the nation.

But Bowie noted that, while Black people make up a disproportionate share of the people prohibited from voting because of felony disenfranchisement, the majority of those convicted of felonies who have lost their rights are, like Trump, not Black.

Bowie also runs the Restore Your Vote campaign, advising people convicted of felonies about how to regain the right to cast a ballot. She said many of the recent calls to the program have come from Trump supporters who were convicted in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“This can really illuminate the issue for a lot of people,” she said of Trump’s jeopardy.