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The Nevada Legislature building as seen in Carson City on Feb. 6, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.

By Frankie Sue Del Papa

Nevada has one of the country’s most restrictive laws barring U.S. citizens from voting because of a past criminal conviction. This needs to change.

The Assembly has passed a bill (AB431) that would restore people’s voting rights immediately upon their release from incarceration. This is in line with an emerging practice around the nation. Nevada would be the 17th state to enable any citizen who is not presently in prison to vote. The Senate should pass this measure before the legislative session ends and Governor Sisolak should sign it into law.

Currently, some Nevadans who are convicted of a felony are banned from voting for life, even when they have completed their sentence. Only 11 other states allow such harsh punishment. Other Nevadans must wait years after completing their sentences. Still others have their rights restored as soon as they are discharged.

The rules are confusing and require knowledge of the law that most people don’t have.

Four percent of Nevadans — roughly 90,000 of us — are formally disenfranchised despite being U.S. citizens. Many more people are entitled to vote but don’t know it or don’t know how to restore their rights.

When citizens return to their communities after serving a prison sentence, we should do everything we can to reintegrate them into society. Voting allows people to be part of things. It means they have a voice in how our local, state, and federal governments are run. Having returning citizens talk to their neighbors about candidates and public policies and think through the issues is a good thing. In other states, it helps people engage and have a stake in their communities and civic life.

Adopting Assembly Bill 431 will also be an important step toward ensuring the right to vote for people of color. Research has shown that African Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system because they are more likely to be stopped, arrested, convicted, and incarcerated than their white counterparts. In Nevada, black people are incarcerated at a rate more than four times higher than whites. These disparities mean that losing the right to vote hits black citizens harder.

Voting is a core constitutional right. Thomas Paine called it “the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery.”

After all, people in prison retain many other rights, including the right to practice their religion, the right to buy and sell property, and the right to marry. The right to vote is on par with those other rights since it allows citizens to be heard in their democracy.

There are those who argue that we don’t need the opinions of people who have broken the law. But at a time when policymakers in Nevada and across the country are considering reforms to our criminal justice system, it makes sense to hear from the people who have been directly affected. The voices of incarcerated people are helpful for understanding the obstacles to re-entry, the practices that are most conducive to rehabilitation, and what a better system might look like.

As our country takes a hard and continuing look at the decriminalization of marijuana, ways to stem opioid consumption and addiction, and improve our mental health treatment apparatus, having more people, not less, participate in democracy is really worth considering.

Frankie Sue Del Papa was the first woman elected as the secretary of state of Nevada and also as the state's attorney general.

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