Maryland Senator Ben Cardin introduced on Tuesday the Democracy Restoration Act (or DRA), which would restore federal voting rights to Americans who are not in prison but are nevertheless denied the right to vote because of prior criminal convictions. The Senate bill follows the historic passage of the For the People Act in the House of Representatives last month, which included a similar provision to restore voting rights.
“We are in a moment where Americans are demanding free, fair, and accessible elections,” the Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez said at a Capitol Hill briefing marking the introduction of the bill. “We are in a moment where folks on both sides of the aisle can see that our criminal justice system is broken. And we are in a moment where people’s desire for progress and growth is palpable.”
Currently, only 14 states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison (Maine and Vermont have no criminal disenfranchisement laws). Among the remaining states, a confusing patchwork of laws restricts the right to vote based on type of conviction, parole or probation status, or payment of legal financial obligations. Confusion and misinformation about these complicated provisions can lead to de facto disenfranchisement. The DRA seeks to simplify these policies, ensuring that any American who is living in the community has the right to vote in federal elections. The bill also provides notice to Americans with past convictions about their right to vote in federal elections.
The policy of criminal disenfranchisement is a relic of Jim Crow-era efforts to disenfranchise black Americans. Research shows that black citizens are disenfranchised at roughly four times the rate of all other Americans. Moreover, there is no criminal justice rationale for disenfranchising people after they have been released from prison. In fact, leading law…