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Proposed Legislation Would Restore Voting for Released Felons

The Democracy Restoration Act, introduced by U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas, Texas, would restore voting rights in federal elections for all released felons regardless of parole or probation status and regardless of state laws.

State Rep. Jasmine Crockett
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett in south Dallas on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.
Liesbeth Powers/TNS
Crystal Mason was on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction when she went to her polling place in Tarrant County, Texas, to vote in the 2016 presidential election. She wasn’t on the list of registered voters, so a poll worker told her to cast a provisional ballot.

A few months later, she was arrested on a charge of illegally attempting to vote.

Mason said she didn’t know she was ineligible due to her supervised release status. And her provisional ballot was never counted.

Still, Mason was tried and sentenced to five years in prison. Her case, now on appeal, has drawn national attention to the inconsistency of felon voting laws across the country.

In Texas, felons get their right to vote back after completing their full sentence, which includes time behind bars but also probation, parole and supervised release.

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D- Dallas, introduced the Democracy Restoration Act last month to restore voting rights in federal elections to all released felons regardless of parole or probation status, and regardless of state laws.

Versions of the measure have been filed since 2008 but never made it to the president’s desk.

In 2022, over 4.5 million U.S. citizens could not vote as a result of a felony conviction, Crockett said. Experts say this includes a disproportionate number of people of color.

Texas is one of 13 states that restore felons’ voting rights after they serve their time, including parole and probation.

In 12 states, convicted felons can lose their right to vote permanently unless their voting rights are restored by their state governor or a judge, depending on the state. In 22 states, voting rights are automatically restored for felons after release from prison, even if they’re on parole or probation.

Rules vary in the other three states. In Louisiana, an individual on probation can vote as long as they’ve been out of prison for at least five years. Vermont and Maine do not disenfranchise convicted criminals at all.

Voting rights experts and prisoner advocates blame the patchwork for confusion that can deter ex-offenders from casting ballots even when they have the right to vote or, in some cases, lands them behind bars again for an honest mistake.

Some see a legacy of the Jim Crow era when such laws were used to keep Black people away from the polls.

“When state governments create confusion about the voting laws and prosecute innocent mistakes to the fullest extent possible, people just don’t risk it,” Crockett told reporters at the Capitol on July 27. “It’s yet another way to make sure that voter suppression is real in this country.”

Mason’s appeal hinges on whether prosecutors can prove she was aware she wasn’t legally allowed to vote. The state’s top criminal appeals court ruled that a lower court that affirmed her conviction has to reconsider her intent. Texas election code states that you can only be convicted of illegally voting if you knew you were doing so.

Mason’s first arrest was in 2012 for inflating returns to her clients as a tax preparer. She pleaded guilty and served three years in prison out of a five-year sentence. After being released, she secured a job at Santander, an auto-finance company.

She lost her job after she was arrested for the second time in 2018. The Tarrant County resident served a little more than seven months in prison for the illegal voting charge before being released on bail.

The Democracy Restoration Act would have prevented Mason’s second arrest. The House included the act in two sweeping election reform bills, the For the People Act in 2021 and the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act in 2022. Both bills died in the Senate.

Breon Wells, co-chair of the Justice Roundtable’s reentry working group that has worked on the Democracy Restoration Act, said there is little organized opposition to the bill, but political influences have stopped it from gaining traction.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find, on the substance of the bill, there to be detractors,” he said. “This has been an issue that has been bipartisan, because we all believe in that narrative of second chances.”

The proposal does face obstacles, however, because many Republicans believe formerly incarcerated individuals are more likely to vote for Democrats.

“The issue has become one not of substance, but of politics,” Wells said. Political leaders don’t want to restore voting rights to those who would vote for their opponents, he said.

Studies show that not all formerly incarcerated individuals vote for Democrats.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D- Md., reintroduced the Senate version of the federal bill in May.

Crockett began her push after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June to make illegal voting a felony in Texas, starting Sept. 1. It has been a misdemeanor since 2021, when it was downgraded from a felony as part of an overhaul of the state’s election laws.

Republican leaders in the Legislature argued that the threat of a felony charge would better deter voter fraud. Opponents say the misdemeanor charge was effective enough, noting that cases of voter fraud are very rare. There were just five convictions for voter fraud in Texas in 2022, including one stemming from a felon illegally attempting to vote.

State lawmakers struck a compromise: Illegal voting would be a felony again in Texas, but conviction would require showing that the defendants knew they were voting illegally.

According to the NAACP, 1 in 3 Black men born today and 1 in 6 Latino men will be sentenced to prison at some point in their lives. For white men, the number is 1 in 17.

“American voters, especially Black and brown voters, are getting the message that just casting a vote could land them in jail,” Crockett said.

The Democracy Restoration Act would restore voting rights for released felons in federal elections only. In states where eligibility doesn’t kick in during probation or parole, the voter would only be able to fill out a federal ballot, said Patrick Berry, counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center for Justice.

But Berry said, “We would expect states to update their rights restoration laws so they’re consistent with federal law.”

Brittany Lovely, coordinator for the Washington Statewide Reentry Council, said her own voting rights were unclear after she was released in Washington state eight years ago. She served about 18 months in prison for a felony drug charge.

“I had been told that my rights would be taken away, but there was no clarity about if, when or how I might get them back,” she said at Crockett’s news conference, adding that she could easily have ended up in a situation like Mason’s after unsuccessfully seeking guidance from her corrections officer, the county clerk and elections staff.

“I got multiple different answers. I got pointed in different directions. And nobody knew,” she said.

©2023 The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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