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Push to restore voting rights for felons gathers momentum

We may not have mandatory voting any time soon. But felon disenfranchisement laws, which keep nearly 6 million Americans from the polls, are under attack.
US voters cast their ballots in the last hour before polls close during the mid-term elections in Loudon County, Va. on Nov. 4, 2014. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty)
US voters cast their ballots in the last hour before polls close during the mid-term elections in Loudon County, Va. on Nov. 4, 2014.

“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” President Obama told a crowd in Cleveland Wednesday. He even mused about the idea of making voting mandatory.

That’s not going to happen any time soon. But in the wake of record low voter turnout in last fall’s midterm elections, a movement is growing in Washington and around the country to dismantle a set of restrictions that keep nearly 6 million Americans from the polls: felon disenfranchisement laws.

RELATED: President Obama suggests 'mandatory voting' would be good idea

Many state restrictions on felon voting were imposed in the wake of Reconstruction, as the South looked for ways to suppress black political power. But now, the falling crime rates of the last two decades have prompted a broader reassessment of tough-on-crime policies. Meanwhile, the ongoing Republican-led assault on voting has triggered a backlash that aims to expand, rather than contract, voting rights.

On Wednesday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), backed by an array of civil- and voting-rights groups, introduced a bill that would restore voting rights for federal elections to Americans with past criminal convictions upon their release from incarceration. That came on the heels of a similar but more limited bill introduced last month by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would apply only to non-violent offenders.

Neither measure is likely to get much traction in the Republican-controlled Congress. But in the states, there has been plenty of movement lately.

The biggest battleground is Florida, which disenfranchises more than 10% of voting-age citizens, and nearly one in four African-Americans, because of past felony convictions. There, a petition drive is underway, led by the League of Women Voters, to get a constitutional amendment on the 2016 ballot that would restore voting rights for ex-offenders.

The Maryland Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to re-enfranchise all felons upon their release from prison—with even many of the bill’s opponents saying they supported the idea of restoring rights to ex-cons. The measure now goes to the state House.

In Minnesota, a similar bill, which would affect around 47,000 people, passed the state Senate last month, but it has yet to receive a hearing in the Republican-controlled House there.

Last year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe dramatically reduced the number of his state’s citizens denied the right to vote by ending the state’s practice of classifying drug crimes as violent felonies. 

RELATED: Obama to Congress: Honor Selma, restore Voting Rights Act

Kentucky bars an estimated 180,000 people from the polls because of past felony convictions. There, voting rights advocates are angry that Paul hasn’t offered more aggressive support for a bill he helped push last year that would restore the right to vote to some non-violent felons. A compromise amendment, supported by the senator, would impose a 5-year waiting period.

In Iowa, a lawsuit filed in November by the American Civil Liberties Union goes after that state’s felon voting ban, which was reinstated in 2011 via executive order by Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican. Under Branstad’s predecessor, Democrat Tom Vilsack, ex-felons had had their voting rights automatically restored.

“These laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War discrimination,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech last year. “And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”

We may not be on the path to imposing mandatory voting. But—voter ID laws and other restrictions notwithstanding—we at least may be moving toward allowing every voting-age citizen to cast a ballot.