“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. 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.