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From prison to the voting booth


WORLD Radio - From prison to the voting booth

States take steps to make it easier for felons to regain voting rights after completing their sentences

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MARY REICHARD: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: voting rights for felons.

Earlier this month, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed a bill into law that restores the right to vote to about 55,000 ex-felons. Audio from CBS that day:

TIM WALZ: We're a country of second chances. We're a country of welcoming folks back in. And the idea of not allowing those voices to have a say in the very governing of the communities they live in is simply unacceptable.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Now, you might be surprised to learn that there is no national set of standards for when felons can regain their ability to vote … that’s up to each state. WORLD Reporter Addie Offereins explains.

OFFEREINS: So each state can decide this as they so choose to do, and there's really a lot of variety across the states. The most common situation for felons in 22 states, they can vote once they've finished their incarceration. So even if they're on parole or probation, finishing out their sentence paying fines and fees, they're still able to vote in 22 states, just not while they're incarcerated.

REICHARD: Minnesota was one of more than a dozen states where felons have to wait until after they finish parole and probation and pay off any fines and fees before they can vote again. And two of the strictest states are Kentucky and Virginia, where felons can only regain their voting rights through an executive action or pardon from the governor.

On the other end of the spectrum, Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote while still in prison. Those two states are still very much the outliers, but states like Nebraska, New Mexico, and Kentucky are considering policy changes to loosen the rules around felons regaining the vote.

Brian Fullman is an advocate for the new law in Minnesota. As a nineteen-year-old selling drugs on the streets in Chicago, Fullman went to prison for two years. Now living in Minnesota, he argues that because of the voting restrictions, he was misinformed about his rights as a citizen.

FULLMAN: But the real harm around having a policy in place where formerly incarcerated can’t vote, is if you're not clear about the law, you don't think you can vote at all. So for the next 10 years, I didn't think I can vote at all. But the actual law states, when you're done with your parole or probation, you can vote. So it should have never had it in place because it's so easy to misinform people.

EICHER: But others are not so keen on laws that lower the bar for felons to vote. Zack Smith, a legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, spoke with our reporter.

OFFEREINS: And he was concerned and I think I also mentioned this before that it makes more sense for a convicted felon to finish the terms of their sentence completely, then be able to vote right away after they're done being incarcerated. Because even if someone is on parole, there's a likelihood that they could violate that role and quickly be sent back to prison. So it wouldn't really make sense for someone to get reintegrated into society right away, when they might, there's often a high likelihood that they will be re-incarcerated. And so they should pay that debt to society in full. They owe that to society, finish their sentence prove they can be a productive member of society, and then they should be able to vote.

REICHARD: A related concern is that these policy changes may not adequately consider the crimes that put felons behind bars to begin with.

OFFEREINS: Another expert I spoke with, Charles Lehmann, he's a fellow with the Manhattan Institute. And he said that he believes rules should consider what kind of crime was committed and how much of their sentence, as well as how much of their sentence a convicted felon has completed. And so some of these states do have exceptions or rules, depending on how violent the crime was, was it Is this person a sex offender, different limitations? In Alabama, there's some pretty strict limitations on when you're able to vote depending on the crime that you committed. And so Charles Lehmann said, This kind of makes sense that there should be variations depending on the severity of your offense against society, because that should impact how much you're able to participate in society.

EICHER: Kate Trammell of Prison Fellowship recognizes the need for some way to safely restore felons to society, but warns against making it too burdensome.

TRAMMELL: So right, not only is it a question of, do we need to keep people from voting in order to keep others safe, right, but also, what is the risk of cutting people off from the voting booth just because they have a criminal record?

REICHARD: Trammell argues that felons who have paid their debt to society shouldn’t have to wait or petition to regain their voting rights. Because in her view … serving time for their crimes is sufficient.

TRAMMELL: The right to vote, we believe has very little to do with specific penalties for crimes outside of that experience of incarceration. Right. But it has a lot to do with healthy engagement in your community.

EICHER: Addie Offereins is WORLD’s Compassion beat reporter. If you’d like to learn more about this story, we’ve included a link in today’s transcript.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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