TJ King had candidates and causes to support but was unable to vote in the last Nebraska election.
King, a visiting specialist with the Nebraska AIDS Project, ended his probation in August after serving time on drug and larceny convictions. In many states he could have voted in November’s general election, but Nebraska requires a two-year waiting period after completing a criminal conviction before anyone can register.
King’s first chance to vote will be in the 2024 presidential election season – unless a bill introduced in January that would remove the two-year requirement is passed and becomes law. That would likely change the timeline for restoring voting rights to King and thousands of other Nebrascans.
Voting, King said in an interview, gives back “a little bit of your power and a little bit of your voice. Being able to vote, to have a say in what happens in your society, in your state, is extremely important.”
Restoring the right to vote for ex-felons drew national attention after the Florida legislature watered down a voter-approved constitutional amendment and after a new election police unit championed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis arrested 20 ex-felons. Several of them said they were confused by the arrests because they were allowed to register to vote.
Attempts such as preventing ex-criminals from voting appear to be an outlier among states, although some Republican-led states continue to restrict voting access in other ways.
At least 14 states have tabled proposals to restore voting rights this year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. An Oregon proposal would allow criminals to vote during their incarceration. A Tennessee bill would automatically restore voting rights once a sentence is served, except for a small group of felonies. Texas legislation would restore voting rights for probation officers or parole officers.
In Minnesota, Democratic Gov. Tim Walz signed legislation on Friday restoring voting rights to convicted felons once they are released from prison. A bill going through the New Mexico Legislature would do the same.
“Restoring the right to vote is really an issue where we’ve seen bipartisan dynamics,” said Patrick Berry, Democracy Program Advisor at the Brennan Center.
More than 4.6 million people in the United States are being disenfranchised because of felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, which is studying the issue and working to restore voting rights for ex-offenders.
Laws vary by state based on pardon requirements, payment of fines, fees and child support, and when a sentence (including parole and probation) is considered complete. The impact is disproportionately hitting people of color, particularly black citizens, who make up a third of the total disenfranchised population while making up about 12% of the total population.
In Nebraska, nearly 18,000 people are unable to vote because of felony convictions, said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. That includes 7,072 who fall under the two-year waiting period and are currently unable to vote. The rest have not yet completed their full punishment.
Civic Nebraska’s Steve Smith, part of a grand coalition of groups supporting the measure, said the wait is creating a group of taxpayers unable to vote for their representatives.
“You’re civic dead and you can’t vote for the people who collect these taxes,” he said.
The bill, which would eliminate the wait, would change a 2005 law. Previously, crimes in Nebraska in most cases resulted in a lifetime ban from voting.
At the time, Nebraska was in step with other states. While some states require waiting periods for specific felonies or define the completion of a sentence to include things like fines and reprieve, Nebraska is the only one that requires a general waiting period beyond incarceration and parole or parole, Margaret Love said , co-founder and director of the Collateral Consequences Resource Center, which maintains a 50-state Restoration of Rights database.
The bill’s author, Democratic state Senator Justin Wayne, said he would be going door-to-door in his first election in 2016 and was told by potential voters they couldn’t vote. Much of the reason was confusion over the law’s waiting period, he said.
He has introduced multiple bills to eliminate the wait, nearly succeeding in 2017 when a bill passed the legislature but was rejected by then-Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts. Wayne, who represents portions of Omaha with strong minority communities, said getting people connected to the voting process is an essential part of successful reentry. His bill was tabled by a Legislature-wide committee last week.
“When people get out of our system, they need to feel engaged in their community, and the most important way for a person to feel engaged in their community is to be able to vote for the leadership of that community,” he said.
Kathy Wilcot, a member of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents, was the only dissenter among the nearly 20 witnesses who spoke on Wayne’s bill. Wilcot stressed that she was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the university.
“I think hopefully the wait reinforces the fact that the election is very special and hopefully that will be part of the things that a person would consider if they were tempted to break the law again,” she said.
Three of the witnesses with criminal records who supported the legislation said in later interviews that the wait is not a deterrent to future crimes, but rather a hindrance to those who have served their sentences.
King, 51, battled addiction for years and spent five years in prison after being convicted of possession of the party drug ecstasy and theft by deception, ending parole last August.
King works in the HIV/AIDS field and volunteers at various organizations, but said voting is still the most direct way to get involved and cried when he spoke about not being able to vote.
“I felt so hopeless and helpless that I couldn’t be heard in this last election,” King said for.”
Demetrius Gatson is among more than 10,000 people in Nebraska who are disqualified from voting because they did not serve their sentence. Because of her parole, she will have to wait until 2030 to vote.
Since her release in 2018, she has earned college degrees and served in various volunteer roles. Gatson, 48, has started her own non-profit organization and is the executive director of QUEENS Butterfly House, a safe house for women trying to get back into society.
For the people she works with, being able to register to vote provides a sense of acceptance, especially when there are so many barriers to where to live, work and who to connect with, she said.
Gatson said there were critical issues close to her heart, including education and criminal justice, but said, “I have no say in anything that goes on in my country because I’m a felon.”
Steven Scott, 33, was paroled in 2015 after serving more than four years on assault and other charges. After his release, he was repeatedly turned down for apartments, only got a job because his boss knew him, and derailed his pursuit of postgraduate studies after his record became public.
He is now married with two young children and owns his own business, a physical rehabilitation and athletic coaching center. He has also regained the right to vote, casting votes for Republican candidates in his first elections, including in 2020. He sees the two-year wait as one link in a long chain of obstacles for those trying to re-enter society.
“You can’t harm society by voting,” he said. “One can only help.”
Associated Press writer Margery Beck contributed to this report.
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