By: Eleyse D’Andrea
Criminals have been stripped of their rights – including the right to vote – throughout history. The revocation of voting rights, known as disenfranchisement, can be traced as far back as ancient Greek and Roman civilization. European colonists carried the concept of disenfranchisement to America, and it has prevailed in modern times despite various challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the disenfranchisement of convicted felons does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution in 1974, and several years later found that a disenfranchisement law is unconstitutional only with evidence of purposeful racial discrimination. This decision gave states like Nebraska the right to permanently disenfranchise convicted criminals. Although Nebraska originally had one of the harshest disenfranchisement laws – a lifetime ban for ex-felons – a bill passed in 2005 provides automatic restoration of voting rights to felons two years after completion of felony sentence.
In 2004, the Vote Nebraska Initiative issued a report calling for automatic restoration of voting rights upon completion of felony sentence. A bill subsequently passed with an amendment stipulating a two-year waiting period between sentence completion and voting right restoration. Estimates suggest that this reform has restored voting rights to over 50,000 Nebraskans. Under the current law, many Nebraskans remain disenfranchised – voting rights are denied to citizens during prison, probation, parole, and then for two years afterwards. However, the automatic restoration of voting rights after those two years is significant in that it eliminates many barriers that leave ex-felons disenfranchised across the nation.
Even with recent reforms, administrative barriers to regaining voting rights make it difficult and even unlikely that ex-felons will undertake the restoration process. The complexity and irregularity of state disenfranchisement laws cause significant confusion. Furthermore, the restoration process varies by state and is cumbersome to the point of discouraging ex-felons from attempting to regain their right to vote. Nebraska is on the forefront of simplifying this process. In Nebraska, no special steps are required for an ex-felon wishing to register to vote. After waiting the two years, ex-felons must only meet the same requirements as all Nebraskan citizens – A U.S. citizen of at least 18 years old, living in the state of Nebraska who has not been found mentally incompetent. They can register online or at a County Clerk Election Commissioner’s Office the same as other Nebraskans. The only exception to this in Nebraska law is that people convicted of treason must apply for a pardon to gain restoration of civil rights before being able to register to vote.
Recent attention to ex-felon disenfranchisement has undoubtedly led to much improvement. However, many state reforms – though passed with good intention – still leave many voiceless in a country founded on the principles of democratic participation. Nebraska serves as an example of effective reform ensuring that Americans who have served time for their felonies are not deprived of their right to a political voice.