Restoring the voting rights of former felons drew national attention after Florida lawmakers weakened a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new election police unit championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrested 20 former felons. Several of them said they were confused by the arrests because they had been allowed to register to vote.
Attempts like those to discourage ex-felons from voting appear to be an outlier among the states, even as some Republican-led states continue to restrict voting access in other ways.
At least 14 states have introduced proposals this year focused on restoration of voting rights, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. An Oregon proposal would allow felons to vote while incarcerated. A Tennessee bill would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is completed, except for a small group of crimes. Texas legislation would restore voting rights to those on probation or parole.
Category Archives: felon voting
“How One City Ended Prison Gerrymandering”
The Howard R. Young Correctional Institution sits between a creek and Interstate 495 in Wilmington, Delaware. For the last ten years, the prison’s 1,281 residents were counted as constituents of Wilmington’s third city council district.
But when local officials sat down to redraw Wilmington’s city council lines after the 2020 Census, they took a new approach: They counted people in the prison at their last known address in Wilmington—and didn’t count them at all if they hadn’t lived in the city.
“Counting people where they are incarcerated during redistricting, it distorts our system of representative government,” said Wilmington Councilmember Shané Darby, who pushed for the change.
Several states, and a growing number of cities and counties across the U.S., have adopted this reform. They’re seeking to end prison gerrymandering—the term advocates use for counting incarcerated people at the facility where they’re locked up, rather than in their home community. The practice typically dilutes the power of urban areas and communities of color, which see higher rates of incarceration, and at their expense boosts white and rural areas where most prisons are located.
But prison gerrymandering affects more than the representation cities receive in statehouses and Congress, where the issue has drawn significant attention. It also distorts representation within a city, affecting the boundaries that define politics at the local level.
That’s the case in Wilmington, Delaware’s most populous city and one where Black residents make up a majority. The city also has the highest rate of incarceration in the state. And not only does a state prison sit within city limits, Wilmington is also home to a facility for people in substance abuse treatment programs and on work release, which itself has about 150 residents.
Delaware passed a law in 2010 ending prison gerrymandering in state legislative maps—but not in maps for municipal or county governments. That left it up to city and county officials to decide whether to do the same for their local districts.
Predictably, different places made different choices. Now, for the rest of the decade, people in this state will be governed by local maps that follow conflicting standards. This idiosyncrasy extends to several other states, with local officials’ choices on prison gerrymandering typically receiving little scrutiny.
“North Carolina Supreme Court Signals It May Roll Back Voting Rights for Thousands”
The state supreme court on Thursday held a hearing on whether North Carolinians should have the right to vote while on probation or parole. The case, CSI vs. Moore, is a challenge to North Carolina’s felony disenfranchisement law, which bars people from voting if they are incarcerated and if they are on some form of supervision over a felony conviction.
Last year, a Superior Court in Wake County issued a landmark ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively restoring the right to vote of 56,000 people in the run-up to the 2022 midterms.
The ruling kicked off a rush among civil rights organizers in North Carolina to tell those “second-chance voters” that they had regained their access to the ballot box, NC Policy Watch and Bolts reported in November. Some of them got to vote in November thanks to the ruling, which made North Carolina one of 24 states where anyone not incarcerated can vote.
But the 2022 midterms upended the political context in North Carolina by flipping the partisan majority of the state supreme court. Republicans picked up two seats, shifting the court to a 5-2 Republican majority and significantly diminishing the odds of major civil rights litigation like this lawsuit.
The partisan shift loomed large at Thursday’s hearings. The two new Republican associate justices, Trey Allen and Richard Dietz, each signaled their skepticism toward the lower court ruling that expanded rights restoration.
“The trial court seems to have imposed a remedy that’s beyond the authority of a court because the courts can’t grant the restoration of voting rights to felons,” said Allen. “The Constitution expressly provides that those rights can only be restored in the manner prescribed by law, and the authority to adopt such a law rests with the General Assembly, not with any court.”
“It seems that our constitutional doctrine is pretty clear, that in North Carolina, we don’t try to get into the minds of legislators,” said Dietz, pushing back against the idea that courts should remedy constitutional violations directly. “We declare something unconstitutional and then tell that other branch of government, ‘You need to try again. You enacted a law and it was unconstitutional. Enact one that is not unconstitutional.’”
Their GOP colleagues hinted that they largely shared this attitude. Should they rule to overturn the Superior Court, it could roll back last year’s voting rights expansion.
“The untold story of how a US woman was sentenced to six years for voting”
Sam Levine deep dive for The Guardian:
It was the morning after Labor Day and Pamela Moses was in a rush.
All summer, the outspoken activist had been feuding with election officials in Memphis, Tennessee. She wanted to get her name on the ballot for Memphis’s 2019 mayoral election, even gathering enough signatures to do so. But officials said she could not run – a prior felony conviction made her ineligible to seek office.
But what unfolded over just a few hours that day on 3 September 2019 would upend her life. It would lead to a sudden arrest months later at O’Hare airport in Chicago and culminate in a six-year prison sentence for voter fraud.
Her case would go on to touch a nerve in the US and cause a national outcry. While there’s no comprehensive data on voter fraud prosecutions based on race, it was one of several recent examples in which Black defendants like Moses have faced long criminal sentences for voting errors, while white people have faced little punishment for more fraud. Long after the abolition of poll taxes and literacy tests, Black Americans still face significant scrutiny for trying to exercise their right to vote.
To make matters worse there is a byzantine bureaucracy in Tennessee and other US states, which can make it nearly impossible for people with felony convictions to vote again. The system has allowed officials to block people from voting for owing small sums of money and prosecutors to bring charges against others who make good-faith mistakes about their voting eligibility.
But at the center of the Moses case was a relatively simple question: should someone who makes a voting mistake face serious criminal charges?
“Florida’s effort to charge 20 people with voter fraud has hit some roadblocks”
Back in August, Florida officials announced they were charging 20 people with alleged voter fraud. It was the first big set of cases investigated by the state’s new election crimes unit, which was created at the urging of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.
The statewide prosecutor recently secured one conviction through a plea deal. But at least three other cases so far have been dismissed on procedural grounds. And attorneys representing those who were charged say Florida’s cases face a tough road — even if they make it to trial.
The state’s effort has been a controversial one. Many of the individuals charged with voting illegally in 2020 say they thought they were eligible to vote, despite past felony convictions, because the state had given them a voter registration card.
“Lawsuit alleges lifetime jury ban harms Black New Yorkers and undermines democracy”
Brigid Bergin (Gothamist) reports on a recently filed federal class-action suit challenging the constitutionality of a New York state law that bars felons from jury service. The suit argues that jury service is a critical democratic practice, and that New York’s lifetime ban “dilutes the voting strength of Black citizens on juries, an institution that is fundamental to democratic self-government and the administration of justice.” The law also “’perpetuates a vicious cycle’ where Black people are underrepresented on Manhattan juries and overrepresented among people with felony convictions.”
The named plaintiff is 44 year-old, public defender, Daudi Justin, who “at least a dozen times each month represent[s] clients faced with misdemeanor charges” in Manhattan Criminal Court. Yet, he is legally barred from serving on a jury. Justin was convicted of a felony when he was 31 years old, served nearly two-years in state prisons, and then went back to get his BA from Columbia University (starting at community college) and now holds a JD from CUNY.
The suit was filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union and Clarick, Gueron, and Reisbaum. As a historical matter, the argument that jury service should be understood as a political right is completely right. As I have written, at the founding and through the early 19th century, jury service was a central political practice, and jury nullification was understood as a critical check on unconstitutional laws.
“After voter fraud arrests, Florida issues new forms that could bolster future cases”
A week after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the arrests of 20 people for alleged voter fraud, his administration quietly made a change that some say could help the state go after more people.
Starting in August, Floridians on probation have been required to sign an updated form placing the burden on them to determine if they’re eligible to vote.
Beneath warnings about remaining drug-free and reporting to their probation officer is the new message:
“By signing this letter,” the updated form states, “you agree that you are solely responsible for determining if you are legally able to register to vote and that you must solely determine if you are lawfully qualified to vote.”…
But the timing of the changes — just eight days after DeSantis held a news conference accusing felons of voting illegally — has some questioning the state’s motives.
Each of the people arrested in August had previously been convicted of murders or felony sex offenses, making them ineligible to vote, even under the 2018 constitutional amendment giving most felons that right after they have finished their sentences. The Departmentof State, which reports to DeSantis, allowed them on the rollsanyway, and they voted in 2020.
To break the law, the voters’actions had to be “willful,” a high legal burden. Many of those arrestedhave said they thought they could vote because they were issued voter ID cards.
The new probation forms — which those on probation are required to sign — could be used as evidence to show future actions were “willful,” said Alex Saiz, a lawyer for the Florida Justice Center, a Broward County-based nonprofit that provides legal aid and reentry services.
“Ron DeSantis’ voter fraud hunt backfires”
Elections officials across Florida are poking holes in the DeSantis administration’s claims that they’re to blame after 20 people were arrested for voting illegally.
Driving the news: Supervisors of elections in Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties say it’s the state’s responsibility to notify local election offices about people ineligible to vote because of certain prior felony convictions, Politico reports.
Pete Antonacci, who DeSantis appointed as head of his elections investigation office, contradicted the governor’s claims by telling local election supervisors in a letter earlier this month that they were not at fault in allowing the felons to vote in 2020.
Why it matters: If the charges don’t stick, DeSantis will have egg on his face after making a show of the arrests to tout his new election security task force.
Some of the people arrested have said they thought they were allowed to vote.
In 2018, Florida voters approved a ballot measure to restore the voting rights of people with prior felony convictions. Alas, it excepted people who had convictions for murder or a felony sex offense.
A lawyer for one of the Miami-Dade defendants told reporter Politico’s Matt Dixon that police dragged his client out of his home in his underwear for the arrest.
“Defendants targeted in DeSantis’ voter fraud crackdown were told they could vote”
Several people who were arrested last week as part of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ voter fraud crackdown were notified by official government entities they were eligible to vote, according to court documents and interviews.
The defendants told authorities they had no intention of committing voter fraud, according to affidavits, and in some cases were baffled by their arrests because counties had sent them voter registration cards and approved them to vote.
The defendants were vilified by the governor during a high profile press conference last week, where DeSantis announced the arrest of 20 people — convicted murderers and sex offenders — who allegedly cast votes in the 2020 election when they weren’t eligible to. The defendants, because of their convictions, weren’t permitted to vote.
DeSantis highlighted their arrests to show his new $1.1 million election security office, created during the 2022 legislative session, was paying off and rooting out bad actors looking to commit voter fraud. Such fraud has become a top tier issue for Republicans across the country, including DeSantis, who has championed a series of election reform bills, including the creation of a first-of-its kind election investigations unit housed under Republican Attorney General Ashley Moody.
In the days since the announcement, however, several of those arrested have told media outlets or authorities that they had no idea they were not eligible to vote. In court documents filed in five counties, most say at least one official government body — in most cases a local election supervisor — incorrectly indicated to them they could vote, including allowing them to register and sending them voter cards in the mail.
Court records show that many who were swept up by authorities have little education or financial resources and are now back in the state’s criminal justice system. Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agents interviewed the defendants over a few days in early August before arresting them last Thursday.
5th Circuit, Sitting En Banc, Upholds Mississippi’s Felon Disenfranchisement Law Despite Finding It was Originally Enacted with Racially Discriminatory Intent, Finding 1968 Reauthorization Free of Such Intent (!)
You can find the per curiam opinion at this link.
From the primary dissent by Judge Graves:
In 1890, Mississippi held a constitutional convention with the express aim of enshrining white supremacy. The 1890 Convention was a backlash against Reconstruction-era efforts to remedy centuries of chattel slavery and violence against Black people. The Convention was successful. The new constitution erased racial progress in Mississippi primarily through disenfranchising Black voters, formally beginning the Jim Crow era of the American South. Today the en banc majority upholds a provision enacted in 1890 that was expressly aimed at preventing Black Mississippians from voting. And it does so by concluding that a virtually all-white electorate and legislature, otherwise engaged in massive and violent resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, “cleansed” that provision in 1968. Handed an opportunity to right a 130-year-old wrong, the majority instead upholds it. I respectfully dissent.
The majority opinion unsurprisingly relies upon the “animus cleansing” that Justice Alito put forward in his Abbott v. Perez majority opinion (and about which I explain in The Supreme Court’s Pro-Partisanship Turn, 109 Georgetown Law Journal Online 50 (2020)).
Florida: “DeSantis touted their arrest. But ex-felons say they weren’t told they couldn’t vote”
When Romona Oliver registered to vote in early 2020 at the Hillsborough Tax Collector’s office, she was asked if she had a felony conviction. She said yes.
The women helping her with the form submitted it, Oliver said. She said she was never asked specifically if her right to vote had been restored.
Oliver, a Tampa resident, had recently been released from a women’s prison in Florida after serving a 20-year sentence for second-degree murder.
In the last few months of her time in prison, Oliver said she’d read about Amendment 4, a constitutional amendment approved by about 65% of Floridians in 2018, which restored the voting rights of most felons who had completed all terms of their sentence.
No one told her she didn’t qualify under Amendment 4; the law doesn’t apply to those with sex offenses or murder charges. She registered as a Democrat and got her voter card in the mail.
In the 2020 presidential election, she voted. It was the first time Oliver, 55, ever did.
“It was exciting for me because I felt like after all that time, I want to get out and try to do the right thing,” she said. “Give back to the community.”
On Thursday morning, Oliver was arrested on a charge of voting as an unqualified elector and false affirmation. That afternoon, Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the arrests of 20 people, Oliver included, who had voted despite having a felony conviction for murder or a sex offense. Those arrested spanned five different counties: Hillsborough, Orange, Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade.
“That is against the law and now they’re going to pay the price for it, so they will be charged,” DeSantis said.
Five of those arrested Thursday on voter fraud charges told the Times/Herald they believed they were able to vote and had faced no issue registering. They said they would not have voted had they known their previous convictions made them ineligible…
Amendment 4 supporters argue that Thursday’s arrests are another sign that the current system for restoring votes for non-violent felons is broken.
Neil Volz, deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, said the felons’ stories reinforce a need for a statewide database that shows election officials whether a person registering to vote is eligible.
“We’ve been banging this drum for years,” Volz said. “If you can’t trust the government to tell you whether you’re eligible in the front end, how can you prosecute somebody in the back end?”
The rollout of Amendment 4 in Florida was marred by confusion and legal wrangling after DeSantis pushed state lawmakers to pass a bill that required felons to pay off all fines and fees and restitution before being able to vote, even though Florida has no central database to track court fees. A judge referred to it as an “administrative nightmare.”
Nearly two years after Amendment 4 was passed, only about 8% of Floridians with felony convictions had registered to vote, according to a Times/Herald analysis.
Breaking: Texas’s Highest Criminal Court Orders New Trial for Crystal Mason
You can find the majority opinion at this link.
“Florida gave voting rights to people with felony convictions. Now some face charges for voting.”
Florida authorities arrested a Black man while he was staying in a homeless shelter and charged him with voting illegally in a case tied to Republicans’ drive to root out election fraud.
But Kelvin Bolton’s arrest raises questions about the rollout of Amendment 4, passed by Florida voters in 2018 to restore voting rights to Floridians with felony convictions.
The case is one of the first of its kind since Florida ended the Jim Crow-era voting policy that disproportionately affected Black citizens. Bolton’s arrest shows how the constitutional amendment now is being weaponized against poor people who may not realize they are committing a crime.
When law enforcement found 55-year-old Bolton at the homeless shelter and arrested him for illegal voting, according to court records and as first reported by Fresh Take Florida at the University of Florida, he was on early release from jail but still serving two-and-a-half years for theft and simple battery.
Bolton, who is currently being held in the Alachua County jail on $30,000 bail, is one of 10 people recently charged in the Gainesville, Florida, area with third-degree felonies for illegal voting. Eight of the 10 are Black men.
They all registered to vote while in jail or mailed ballots from jail, but had unpaid fines and fees from prior felony convictions that barred them from voting under a 2019 law, according to the state attorney’s office. Each is facing a potential five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Bolton currently owes $7,018 in unpaid court fines and fees, including $1,500 in attorney and indigent appearance fees, according to an analysis of court records.
“Prosecutor drops all charges against Pamela Moses, jailed over voting error”
Sam Levine for The Guardian:
A Memphis prosecutor has dropped all criminal charges against Pamela Moses, the Memphis woman who was sentenced to six years in prison for trying to register to vote.
Moses was convicted last year and sentenced in January. She was granted a new trial in February after the Guardian published a document showing that had not been given to her defense ahead of the trial.
Moses was set to appear in court on Monday to find out whether prosecutors would pursue a retrial.
The central issue in her case was whether she had known she was ineligible to vote when a probation officer filled out and signed a form indicating she was done with probation for a 2015 felony conviction and eligible to cast a ballot. Even though the probation officer admitted he had made a mistake, and Moses said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote, prosecutors said she knew she was ineligible and had deceived him. Moses stood in the lobby of the probation office while the officer went to his office to research her case for about an hour, he said at trial….
Amy Weirich, the Shelby county district attorney, who prosecuted the case, noted Moses had spent 82 days in jail before she was granted a new trial, “which is sufficient”.
“In the interest of judicial economy, we are dismissing her illegal registration case and her violation of probation,” she said in a statement.
She noted that Moses is permanently barred from voting in Tennessee. One of the crimes she pleaded guilty to in 2015, tampering with evidence, causes people to permanently lose their voting rights in Tennessee. During Moses’s trial, the judge overseeing the case and the two probation officers said they were unaware that was a crime that caused people to permanently lose the right to vote.