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Prison bars. Wikimedia Commons photo.
By Deane Albright, Pat Hickey, and Dana Lee
Fourteen years ago, Republican Governor Kenny Guinn and a unanimous legislature restored voting rights to thousands of Nevadans with convictions in their past. Going forward, that reform created an automatic process for citizens with first time nonviolent convictions to automatically regain their rights after an honorable discharge from parole or probation.

However, over time and despite the best of intentions, the law has shown its defects: today, nearly 90,000 citizens are barred from voting — more than double the number of people without voting rights since those early reforms were passed.

One reason for this is an overly complex process for getting one’s right to vote back. Many citizens with criminal histories need lawyers to help restore their rights or simply learn if they have the right to vote. There is widespread confusion about the law’s requirements among elections officials. Confusion can discourage participation among citizens who are legally eligible to vote again but would rather not for fear of being wrong.

But now, Governor Brian Sandoval and lawmakers have a real opportunity to come together on a bi-partisan basis and fix these problems with new legislation. Two bills in the state legislature would simplify the state’s policy and provide more meaningful opportunities for restoration.

One proposal, SB 125, would automatically restore rights after one year of probation or parole for those convicted of non-violent crimes.

This bill is a forward-looking proposal that serves the re-entry process by encouraging Nevadans with past convictions to get engaged in their communities. As former American Parole and Probation Association Executive Director Carl Wicklund wrote: “one of the key factors in successful re-entry is a person’s identity as a responsible citizen. This identity is built through activities like community engagement, volunteer work and voting.” Research supports the link between voting and successful re-entry. For example, one study found “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrests, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior.” These policies would complement the efforts of groups like Hope for Prisoners, a local non-profit organization that facilities reentry and reintegration services for ex-offenders, which has received support and praise from judges, elected officials, churches, and business leaders.

In 2011, Governor Sandoval vetoed a similar rights restoration bill, but he indicated that he was open to streamlining the process. He wrote at the time that he preferred a policy that took into account the underlying crime and whether it was violent or serious in nature.

The legislative proposal currently being deliberated is that compromise. The bill addresses the governor’s concerns by providing a stricter process and waiting period before voting rights are restored for persons convicted.

In addition, this bill would put Nevada much closer to the national mainstream on this issue. The reform would make the state’s law more similar to that of thirty-eight other states,including Texas, Kansas, South Carolina, and Oklahoma, where rights are automatically restored after full completion of criminal sentence or earlier.

In 2003, when Governor Guinn, whose values we seek to embody in this organization, signed our state’s major voting rights restoration overhaul, he joined lawmakers of both political parties in recognizing that citizens returning to the community ought to be given a second chance. Unfortunately, that opportunity has eluded too many in Nevada. The vast majority of citizens without voting rights here are people who have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole.

Similar to fourteen years ago, current legislative proposals represent an opportunity for a Republican governor to again work with lawmakers to make our state’s disenfranchisement laws work in the interest of reintegration and rehabilitation. Proposed legislation would cut away red tape and implement a straightforward solution on which leaders from all sides should agree.

Deane Albright, Pat Hickey, and Dana Lee serve on the board of directors of the Guinn Center for Policy Priorities, a nonprofit nonpartisan think tank.
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