Updated May 28, 2018

Former felons lead the voter restoration movement

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Formerly incarcerated people across the country are using their past connections with the criminal justice system to lead the national movement to restore voting rights for the disenfranchised.

Between the lines: Laws stripping voting rights from people with past criminal convictions vary widely from state to state. Some revoke rights permanently and require a petition for restoration, while others restore the right after release. But an estimated six million formerly incarcerated people nationwide cannot vote — an amount experts say has the potential to change election outcomes in key states with strict felon-voting policies.

"Those who are closer to the problem are a big part of the solution."
— Checo Yancy, an organizer with the Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), told Axios.

The backdrop: Louisiana's governor is expected to sign a measure that Yancy, an organizer with the Voice of the Experienced (VOTE,) and others had lobbied for, that will allow those on probation or parole to vote, once they've been out of prison for five years.

What they're saying: Former felons-turned reform advocates say voting restoration would ease transition into society and allow them to overcome the stigma of incarceration.

  • "This is a big reward. We've been fighting it in court," said Yancy, who has been out of prison for for 15 years and whose parole ends in 2056.

The other side: Meanwhile, many Republicans and conservative groups, who fiercely oppose any changes to felon voting laws, have long argued that people must first prove that they’ve been rehabilitated.

State of play:
  • Florida: A November ballot measure led by Desmond Meade, a former felon and leader of a local group, would automatically restore voting rights to felons once they complete their prison sentences.
  • Mississippi: There are two pending federal suits seeking automatic restoration after a person completes a sentence for a disenfranchising crime. The state’s constitution currently outlines several crimes that disqualify a person from voting, and only gubernatorial pardon or legislative action can restore the right to vote.
  • New Jersey: State lawmakers are weighing a measure that would allow people in prison to vote. Only Maine and Vermont currently do so.

Meanwhile, the movement has reaped recent successes: Just this week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) on Tuesday issued the first set of conditional pardons restoring the right to vote to more than 24,086 parolees.

  • Last year, thousands of Alabama felons were added to voter rolls after the state Legislature passed a law that clarified under which crimes convicted felons are barred from voting.
  • In 2016, then Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) restored voting rights to more than 155,000 convicted felons who had completed their sentences.

Go deeper: The long voting rights fight for Florida's ex-felons

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