Judiciary Panel Streamlines Voter Rights Restoration

Judiciary Panel Streamlines Voter Rights Restoration

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Inmates in Maine and Vermont prisons can vote by absentee ballot.

Don’t expect that scenario — or anything close to it — to ever happen in Wyoming. We have one of most restrictive voting rights restoration laws for felons in the country, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations.

But there are signs the Equality State may make the process easier for people convicted of a single nonviolent felony to be able to vote again. Last week, the Joint Judiciary Committee met in Laramie and unanimously decided to sponsor a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to eligible felons.

Wyoming passed a law in 1907 to disenfranchise all felons. The statute was changed in 2003, when the Legislature took a relatively small step: Five years after completing their sentence, probation or parole, a nonviolent felon could apply to the Board of Parole to have his or her voting rights restored. It restricts eligibility to those who have committed a single non-violent felony, or a number of non-violent felonies that stemmed from the same event.

But there was a hitch — lawmakers gave the board the responsibility to restore voting rights, but didn’t specify how it should be done. Board members have complained ever since and requested guidance from the Legislature, but none has been forthcoming.

Several bills to clarify the law have failed to pass, with opponents generally arguing that if people want to vote, they should obey the law.

Despite the intentions of the Legislature 11 years ago, only about one-quarter of 1 percent of the 4,200 former inmates in Wyoming who are eligible under the 2003 law have had their voting rights restored since 2004.

Current law also allows restoration of voting to felons who are pardoned by the governor.

States have created their own laws to allow for the re-enfranchisement of different types of felons. In 35 states, those on parole cannot vote, and 31 states place the same prohibition on former inmates who are on probation.

Four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia — don’t allow any felons to vote, period.

Wyoming is one of eight states that allow partial reinstatement of voting rights to certain felons. Like Wyoming, Nevada also created an exception for non-violent, one-time felons in 2003. But instead of adopting a five-year waiting period, Nevada made the process automatic — the same change our state’s legislative Judiciary Committee wants to enact now.

Even if the bill passes next year, former prisoners will initially have to submit applications to the Wyoming Department of Corrections (DOC) and the state Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI), which will determine eligibility. The DOC would issue certificates stating these felons are eligible to vote, but the process would become automatic after Jan. 1, 2016.

Dan Neal, executive director of the Equality State Policy Center, a coalition that advocates for good government initiatives, said voting is a key component of being a member of a community. He noted the DOC has consistently testified to lawmakers that getting former inmates involved in their community will result in less people returning to prison.

Because it costs so much to house prisoners — the DOC estimates it’s about $45,000 per year for each inmate — Neal said reducing recidivism would also positively impact the state’s budget.

He described the current system of applying to have voting rights restored after five years as “daunting,” and said many ex-prisoners who qualify either don’t know about it or just give up.

“It just looks so hard, they don’t do it,” Neal explained.

Marguerite Herman of the Wyoming League of Women Voters agreed. “It’s a process pretty much unknown to anyone,” she said.

An application to have voter rights restored is available on the Wyoming Board of Parole’s website ( http://boardofparole.wy.gov/votingrights/votingrights.htm). It authorizes the board to request a criminal records check from the DCI, which may take up to 30 days. The completed application must be notarized and certified copies submitted to the board.

After the Board of Parole determines if a former inmate is eligible, he or she is notified about their status. Currently, if an applicant is turned down, there is no clear appeals process. The committee’s bill would set up a judicial review system.

Neal said one of the best things about the bill is the day a prisoner gets out, or is no longer on parole or probation, the DOC will give those eligible a certificate that states their voting rights have been restored. “Presumably, the department will also send a similar document to the court where the offender was convicted,” he added.

Neal said he would like to see the bill amended so the DOC must notify inmates who paid their debt to society and were released many years ago who qualify to be able to vote again. However, a DOC spokesman said it would be difficult for the state to locate former prisoners, especially those who no longer live in Wyoming.

While it’s not “ideal,” he said, the bill at least sets up a process. “If they’re here, they’re going to have to take a little action [on their own],” the spokesman said.

Herman said the League of Women Voters will help publicize changes in the law if the bill is approved by legislators.

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