Nevada may soon restore voting rights to tens of thousands of people who have been released from prison after serving out a felony conviction.
The bill, which passed both chambers of the state legislature and is awaiting a signature from newly elected Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak, would restore one of the most fundamental constitutional rights to people that have served their debt to society.
“Nevada is about to go from the embarrassing distinction of having one of the most complicated and draconian laws in the country to be among the most democratic and inclusive of formally incarcerated people,” Blair Bowie, a fellow at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington, D.C., told ThinkProgress.
The bill is one of several ways Nevada Democrats have sought to increase voter turnout since taking control of both the governor’s office and the state legislature following the November 2018 midterm elections.
So far this year, the state legislature has introduced a sweeping voter rights bill that automatically registers motorists to vote when they get their drivers’ licenses and allows for same day voter registration, among other features. Such laws have been shown to improve turnout among populations that have historically been underrepresented at the polls, including students, low-income residents and people of color.
“Every Nevadan should be able to vote because it is our fundamental right to do so. We want to make sure our voting process is a seamless process,” said Annette Magnus, executive director of Battle Born Progress, a progressive advocacy group in Nevada.
If signed into law by Sisolak, the voter re-enfranchisement bill will allow Nevada to join 38 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing formally incarcerated citizens to automatically exercise their voting rights after serving their sentence and completing parole.
It would immediately restore the voting rights of more than 77,000 people once they leave prison, including those in jail and those out on parole or on probation. The bill passed in the state Senate along party lines on Wednesday.
The expansion of voting rights in Nevada comes amid efforts in some Republican-controlled states to restrict voting rights, including preventing as many minority voters from casting a ballot as possible, in a bid to retain power. Those states have passed a raft of voter suppression regulations over the past decade, including voter ID laws, restrictions on early voting, and barriers to registering to vote.
Nevada Republicans argued that the measure will restore the vote to people with serious felonies who have not proved they deserve a second chance, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal.
You clearly didn't read the bill. Section 2 provides for automatic restoration to those dishonorably discharged. The bill does nothing to help them reenter society; instead it rewards them even when they refuse to abide by the terms of their parole. https://t.co/mQtdk8QijP
— Keith Pickard (@Pickard4Nevada) May 23, 2019
But experts say re-enfranchising people who have served time in prison reduces recidivism because it allows them to feel that they have a stake in their own communities and gives them a sense of belonging.
Changing the law also streamlines a process that formally incarcerated people have said is confusing and often difficult to navigate.
Currently, Nevada requires anyone with multiple convictions or has committed violent crimes to go through a complicated petition process in order to get their rights back. State agencies often failed to provide the needed paperwork to prove that the formerly incarcerated person was eligible to vote again, Bowie said.
The state previously relaxed its restrictive laws in 2017, by getting rid of a mandate requiring first time and non-violent offenders to be honorably discharged from parole or probation to get their rights back. People who could not pay off their legal debts were often dishonorably discharged, specifically disenfranchising lower-income people.
Getting rid of those barriers now allows Nevadans to exercise their constitutional rights.
“This is a really great step for full democratic inclusion,” said Wesley Juhl, spokesman at the ACLU of Nevada, which advocated in support of the bill.
“We know that [voting] is a priority for everyone coming back into society. We just want to make sure they feel whole again and like full members of the community,” he added.
Across the United States meanwhile, there are signs in recent years that public support has largely shifted in favor of allowing people who were formerly incarcerated to vote.
The 2020 Democratic presidential nominees recently debated whether to allow people currently in prison to vote.
And last November, Floridians overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure restoring the voting rights of 1.5 million people with felony convictions. But the Republican-controlled legislature has been hard at work trying to deny thousands their new-found voting rights.
Lawmakers in Tallahassee earlier this month passed a bill that excludes people with convictions from getting back their vote unless they pay off their fees and fines. Those arrears can sometimes amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law.
With its new-found control over the government, and as long as they keep power, Democrats are positioned to prevent such an outcome in Nevada.