Indy Explains: How much have lawmakers expanded ex-felon voter rights?
Nevada Democrats highlighted a bill that would restore voting rights to a larger pool of ex-felons as one of their proudest accomplishments this session.
It won’t make Nevada as progressive as some states — Vermont and Maine allow people to vote even while they’re imprisoned — but it will make Nevada more forgiving than places such as Iowa, Kentucky, Florida and Virginia that forever bar ex-felons from voting.
But how much of an impact will lawmakers’ work in 2017 actually have, and what barriers will ex-felons still face before they can exercise the right to vote?
Here are some things to know about the changes made through AB181, which will take effect Jan. 1, 2019:
Nevada already allows some ex-felons to vote
The 2003 Legislature laid the groundwork for more rights restoration with AB55. The bill allowed people their voting rights back immediately after they are honorably discharged from probation, while they could serve as a juror on a criminal trial four years after that, and could serve in public office six years after their honorable discharge.
They were not eligible for rights restoration if they committed a category A felony (one that could be punishable by life in prison or the death penalty), a violent category B felony (one punishable by up to 20 years in prison), or committed a felony on more than one occasion.
Others who were still allowed to register to vote under pre-existing law are those who were convicted of misdemeanors only, those who were charged but never convicted, those who completed their sentence by July 1, 2003, those who had an unconditional pardon, and those who had their conviction overturned.
Also, those who had their rights restored in another state (or never revoked in the first place) can register.
The honorable discharge element is the sticking point
Proponents of AB181 say the most substantial element of the bill is that it will allow rights restoration for people who have been dishonorably discharged.
According to statistics from the Nevada Division of Parole and Probation, 5,302 people were honorably discharged in 2016, while 1,702 were dishonorably discharged. That means about one-quarter of all people who leave their parole or probation did so “dishonorably.”
Such a discharge can happen for a variety of reasons, including more minor that someone didn’t have money to pay full restitution to their victims or that they used marijuana during their probation.
“They really shouldn’t be called dishonorable discharges,” said Holly Welborn, policy director at the ACLU of Nevada. “There’s a lot of negative connotation with that. But at the end of the day, it’s no longer going to be an unfair process for poor people.”
The bill passed on a party-line 12-8 vote in the Senate and a 29-13 vote in the state Assembly, with Republicans Paul Anderson and Keith Pickard joining Democrats in supporting the bill.
Gov. Brian Sandoval had vetoed a more sweeping rights restoration bill in 2011, but signed AB181, which was substantially amended from that version and excluded people convicted of the most violent offenses.
While restoration is “automatic,” it’s not always easy
In the past, and even under the bill, ex-felons still have to prove they have their rights restored in order to register. That comes in the form of a document from the court that can be replaced free of charge if it’s lost.
State and federal courts send records to the Nevada secretary of state’s office, which forwards them along to local elections officials. When an ex-felon tries to register to vote, the database would indicate they have a felony conviction and prompt the registrar to ask for documentation of rights restoration.
The state receives records of felonies but not of record-sealing or rights restoration. The proof needed to register to vote can include a certificate of discharge from prison, an order of discharge from probation, a final discharge from parole or a court order restoring rights.
The extra step can be enough of a barrier to stop many from taking advantage of their newfound right to vote. Other states don’t require such paperwork to prove rights have been restored.
All others must petition the court
Ex-felons who don’t qualify for automatic rights restoration under the new law must petition the court to have their rights back. That can be expensive — in Washoe County, that costs $260, although people can seek to have the fee waived.
Feature photo: People check in to vote during primary election day at Sahara West Library on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.