Still, it’s taken a while for even post-incarceration enfranchisement to get on liberal legislators’ agendas, Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, told me. That’s gradually changing. In 2019 alone, state lawmakers introduced proposals in at least 16 states and Washington, D.C., to expand, study, or facilitate voting for people with felony convictions. In some places, this would apply to people still in prison. So far, though, the most significant action has been on proposals to expand voting for people who have been released from prison: Within the last year, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida have expanded voting rights for this group in some capacity. In 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring voting rights to people on parole, though the change hasn’t been codified.
But even some states with Democratic governors and legislatures haven’t yet restored voting rights to people on parole or probation, while proposals allowing incarcerated people to vote have stalled. Last year, in California, a group called Initiate Justice that claims 19,000 incarcerated members launched an effort to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would have restored voting rights to California residents who are in prison or on parole for felony convictions. They collected about 25,000 signatures, but needed almost 600,000. “We tried to mobilize families of incarcerated people, but with no money to reach everyone through media campaigns, we fell short,” said Rahsaan Thomas, who proposed the idea for that initiative from San Quentin State Prison, where he is incarcerated. This year, activists are hoping to get a measure on the 2020 ballot that would restore voting rights only to those on parole, according to Taina Vargas-Edmond, a co-founder of Initiate Justice.
In New Mexico, lawmakers introduced legislation this year that would have restored the vote to all people with felony convictions, including those still incarcerated, but the bill died. “I just don’t think the public is ready for something like that,” said state Representative Daymon Ely, a Democrat. Ely expects a more limited bill focusing on people on parole and probation to come up within the next two years.
On the national level, while campaigning for president as a Democrat, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has come out in support of restoring voting rights to all people with felony convictions, including those incarcerated. But other Democrats have taken more conservative positions, and Donald Trump has derided Sanders’s stance as enfranchising “terrorists.”
In Florida, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed into law restrictions on the state’s new voting-rights amendment, which are now being challenged in court. (Some people perceive that enfranchising those with felony convictions will dramatically help Democrats, though one analysis of a group granted voting rights in Florida found that isn’t necessarily the case.) Still, among other conservatives, there appears to be some appetite for restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions after they have finished their sentences. “When people have paid their debt to society and come back into society, they should get their rights back, including voting rights,” barring a compelling public-safety reason, said Mark Holden, the senior vice president of Stand Together, a philanthropic organization founded by Charles Koch and funded by conservative donors.