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The State of Reform
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New felon rights win: Californians will decide on letting parolees vote

Another big moment for efforts to expand the voting rights of former prisoners will come in November, when Californians decide whether almost 50,000 parolees should be given access to the ballot box.

Sponsors of the referendum, which last week won final legislative approval for a spot on the ballot, say they're confident the vote will go their way. That would add the nation's most populous state to the roster of 16 that permit felons to vote as soon as they get out of prison.

Restoring the franchise to ex-convicts has become a top cause of civil rights groups, who say democracy is enhanced when political power is given back to people who have paid their debt to society. The campaign has gained additional momentum this summer from the nationwide protests against police violence and systemic racism.


Resistance to the idea comes mainly from Republicans, who say the ability to vote should not be granted too easily to violent or repeat offenders. But there's also clearly partisan politics at work. About 56 percent of the nation's prison population is Black or Latino — double the share of the population overall — and they vote decidedly Democratic.

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Still, more than 2 million felons have seen their voting rights expanded in the past decade thanks to actions by state legislatures and gubernatorial orders. In the last year, for example, laws enacted in Nevada and Colorado did what the California measure would accomplish and allowed a combined 87,000 people on parole to vote again.

Iowa is the only state left where felons lose the right to cast a ballot for life, unless the governor steps in, and last month Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds promised to sign an executive order before the election restoring the right to vote to about 60,000 people with felony convictions.

In the most important referendum on the topic so far, Floridians voted overwhelmingly in 2018 to allow 1.4 million criminals to cast ballots after completing both parole and probation — the law in almost half the states now, including California.

Thousands are now registering in the presidential battleground while GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis appeals a federal judge's May ruling that struck down a state law, enacted a year ago, requiring felons to pay all their court-ordered financial obligations before voting.

California was one of the first states to restore any sort of political rights to the formerly incarcerated, adopting a referendum in 1974 allowing felons to vote after both probation and parole were complete. That is too strict by today's standards, sponsors of the ballot measure say.

The referendum "gives Californians the chance to right a wrong and restore voting rights for a marginalized community and people of color," said Democratic state Rep. Kevin McCarty, whose bill passed the House easily last fall and cleared the Senate by a lopsided 28-9 last week. "This is good for democracy and good for public safety."

Republican state Sen. Jim Nielsen called the proposal a "criminal injustice" policy because former criminals should be "subject to consequences for their behavior."

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