by Jonathan Arogeti
While a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice has received wide publicity for spotlighting new state laws that have the potential to suppress access to the polls, the report also highlights the perennial issue of felon disfranchisement. “Many people don’t know that when it comes to voting, your rights are not automatically restored if you’re a felon,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, the director and counsel of the center’s D.C. office during a video interview with ACSblog.
To combat this disenfranchisement, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which would immediately restore voting rights in federal elections for individuals who have served their time in prison for a felony.
Austin-Hillery points to two states, Florida and Iowa, whose felon voting law have “retrogress[ed].” The same day Republican Gov. Terry Branstad assumed office, he rescinded a law that automatically restores voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences. In 2005, then-Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack issued the opposite order.
Two months after assuming his office, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced new rules that required a Clemency Board to review all applications and revoked the automatic restoration of voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences.
Austin-Hillery also points to Kentucky and Virginia, two states where former felons practically “never get [their] right to vote restored.” The Commonwealth of Virginia required many “draconian, cumbersome steps” to restore the rights to vote, including individually petitioning the Governor. It “really goes against the tenets of democracy,” laments Austin-Hillery.
Watch the full interview with Austin-Hillery below.