Should Dangerous Felons on Parole Have the Right to Vote?
Among the measures on a lengthy statewide ballot this November – there are 11 statewide ballot propositions in addition to numerous local measures across the state – are two curious measures that deal with voting.
One measure, Proposition 18, would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary and special elections if they will turn 18 before the next general election. As we’ve documented in the past on Right by the Bay, it’s another measure in a series authored by Sacramento Democrats to undermine fair elections in California and weaken state election rules in their favor.
The other, Proposition 17, is a highly-controversial measure that would restore the voting rights of some convicted felons in the state. It was placed on the ballot primarily by Democrats in the state legislature.
According to the state voter guide, Prop. 17 “amends the state constitution to restore voting rights to persons who would have been disqualified from voting while serving a prison term as soon as they complete their prison term.”
Proponents argue in their ballot argument that “when a person completes their prison sentence, they should be encouraged to reenter society and have a stake in their community.”
Opponents, including Crime Victim United’s Harriet Salarno and State Sen. Jim Nielsen (a former chair of the state Board of Prison Terms), counter that “in California, parole is legally a part of the prison sentence, and a convicted felon must successful complete parole upon release from incarceration in order to have served their sentence and have their voting rights restored.”
They also note that “if the state does not trust parolees to choose where to live or travel . . . it must not trust them with decisions that will impact the lives and finances of all other members of society.”
Prop. 17 is part of a national effort to restore state voter rights to felons. As the Washington Post noted in a 2019 article, “roughly six million Americans are barred from voting because they committed a felony.”
And it is Democrats who have been pushing to restore voter rights for felons, seeing a rich pool of potential voters for their candidates. As the Post noted, “There’s some evidence that following the 2018 elections, the fight is moving onto Democratic turf with states controlled by Democrats hoping to expand ballot access. And now that fight is bleeding over into the 2020 race over the voting rights of felons and people who formerly committed violent crimes.”
Nationally, the issue could have huge implications in the outcome of future elections.
The National Conference of State Legislatures notes that 16 states and the District of Columbia restore voter rights automatically for felons upon release, while 21 states restore voter rights once parole or probation has been completed (and in some cases, pay fines and restitution).
The latter issue has been particularly controversial in the State of Florida. According to the Associated Press, after Florida voters restored felon voter rights by passing Amendment 4 in 2018, Gov. Ron DeSantis and lawmakers acted in 2019 to require that “all legal financial obligations including unpaid fines and restitution, would also have to be settled before a felon could be eligible to vote.”
Earlier this month, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the requirement. According to Politico, “one study suggested that nearly 775,000 people with felon convictions have outstanding court debts that render them ineligible to vote in Florida.” The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the Florida case, along with cases in presidential battlegrounds Wisconsin and Texas and U.S. Senate battleground Alabama.
While Prop. 17 probably wouldn’t tip the balance any time soon in heavily blue California, the issue is worth watching nationally as restoring tens if not hundreds of thousands of voters to rolls in each respective battleground state could have a profound impact on the winner of presidential elections for generations to come.
Tim Anaya is the Pacific Research Institute’s senior director of communications and the Sacramento office.