TEXAS VIEW: We need a national law for restoring felon voting rights

THE POINT: The Texas standard is a smart place to start.

Former felony offenders most likely will face significant hurdles to a successful reentry to life outside of prison, such as getting a job, renting an apartment or even voting. Establishing a national standard for restoring the right to vote is a reasonable step toward a healthy return to society.

Of the millions of Americans convicted of felonies each year, most serve their sentence and eventually return to communities all across this nation. Yet, despite growing support among some conservatives and progressives, repeated efforts to restore voting rights to ex-convicts who have fulfilled their legal obligations have stalled in Congress amid concerns from some Republicans that restoring rights would favor Democrats and that voting should be reserved for those who have not broken the law.

Politics aside, Americans should agree on this: A person who has fulfilled their debt to society should have an opportunity to rebuild a life as a citizen and voter.

The latest overture to adopt a national standard to restore voting rights comes from U.S. Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas. In July, Crockett introduced the Democracy Restoration Act to restore voting rights in federal elections to all released felons regardless of parole or probation status, and regardless of state laws.

Although well-intentioned, Crockett’s proposal is problematic. A better position would be to require offenders to fully satisfy parole, probation and other circumstances of their sentences before voting rights are restored.

More than a century ago, the Supreme Court affirmed the right to vote as “ preservative of all rights.” However, nearly 80 million Americans, or about one-third of the total U.S. adult population, have some kind of criminal record, including more than 19 million Americans who have a felony conviction on a permanent record. And due to restrictive state laws, roughly 5 million people are unable to vote after they have left incarceration.

It’s time to end the patchwork of state laws that impose different requirements and prohibitions on voting rights. In Texas, felons are prohibited from voting while in prison, on parole or on probation, but can reclaim their voting rights if they fulfill all post-release obligations. That is a reasonable standard and one that a federal law might mirror.

However, some states permanently strip a person of voting rights or force them through a series of complicated steps such as a governor’s pardon, an additional waiting period or other requirements to complete their sentence. And at the other extreme, a person incarcerated in Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., will be able to vote even while in prison.

Voting is a key civil right in a functioning democracy that should be returned to those who are trying to rebuild a life.

The Dallas Morning News