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H.R. 1459 (114th): Democracy Restoration Act of 2015

4.4 million citizens with criminal records who have served their time remained barred from voting in federal elections.

It’s not only a civil rights issue but also a political issue: Criminal disenfranchisement laws may have swung Florida in the 2000 presidential election towards the Republicans and could have a similar effect again. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe caused controversy last month afterunilaterally granting voting rights to 206,000 felons who had completed their sentences, in what is considered one of the three biggest swing states for November.

Each state sets their own rules for who is eligible to vote, so while the most lenient states like Vermont and Maine allow even currently incarcerated prisoners to vote, other states like Florida,Kentucky, and Iowa ban those with felony convictions from voting for life — even if they’re fully reformed and have been out of jail for decades.

The Democracy Restoration Act, S. 772 and H.R. 1459, would grant millions of those people the right to vote in federal elections.

What it does

Introduced by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Rep. John Conyers (D-MI13), the bill would allow ex-offenders to vote in federal elections once they’re out of prison. 2.6 million people with felony convictions have completed their entire sentence — prison, and probation/parole if applicable. The bill only applies to federal elections, so states and municipalities would maintain their current laws regarding state and local elections such as for governor.

This could have tremendous impacts, including on the Commander-in-Chief. Florida, the most populous swing state, bans convicted felons from voting for five years after they’re released from jail. If this bill were to pass, the number of Floridians who would both be allowed to vote and who actually would (based on estimated turnout rates) would be double the margin Barack Obama won the state by in 2012.

What supporters say

Supporters say the bill will make the country a better democracy, eliminate a racially disparate system, and move away from what many perceive as an over-punitive and under-rehabilitating criminal justice system.

“Criminal disfranchisement laws proliferated following Reconstruction, intended to limit access to the vote for African-Americans after the formal end of slavery. Today’s disfranchisement laws are direct descendants of the laws promulgated in that era,” the ACLU wrote about the bill.

“The denial of voting rights by many states to ex-offenders represents a vestige from a time when suffrage was denied to whole classes of our population based on race, gender, religion, national origin and property. This goes against the very fundamental principles of our democracy,” Conyers said. “Disenfranchisement laws isolate and alienate ex-offenders, and serve as one more obstacle in their attempt to successfully reintegrate into society.”

“The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions,” Cardin said. “State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system.”

What opponents say

Most Republicans see the bill as a thinly veiled attempt for Democrats to gain more voters. The incarcerated are disproportionately black, Hispanic, and poor — all three demographics more likely to vote Democratic. (The reasoning is similar for Republican opposition to a Democratic plan to make the heavily-Democratic Washington, D.C. the 51st state, as GovTrack Insider covered last month.)

Indeed, the House and Senate versions of the bill have 39 and 11 cosponsors, respectively — none Republican.

Odds of passage

With Republicans controlling both chambers, the bill isn’t likely to be brought up for consideration this year. Yet a congressional bill introduced, regardless of likelihood of enactment this year, could spur state level reforms, as in the aforementioned Virginia example. Colorado and New Hampshire are two other swing states with Democratic governors that may follow Virginia’s lead.

Last updated May 11, 2016. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Mar 19, 2015.


Democracy Restoration Act of 2015

Declares that the right of a U.S. citizen to vote in any election for federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense unless, at the time of the election, such individual is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility. Provides for enforcement of, and remedies for violations of, this Act.

Prohibits this Act from being construed to prohibit a state from enacting any state law that affords the right to vote in any election for federal office on terms less restrictive than those terms established by this Act. Declares that the rights and remedies established by this Act shall be in addition to all other rights and remedies provided by law and shall not supersede, restrict, or limit the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. Sets forth requirements for state and federal notification of individuals of the restoration of their voting rights. Prohibits any state, local government, or other person from receiving or using any federal funds to construct or improve a place of incarceration unless that person has in effect a program to notify each U.S. citizen incarcerated in that person's jurisdiction, upon release from such incarceration, of that individual's rights under this Act.