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More states appear poised to expand voting access for people who were incarcerated

Steve Karnowski/AP
The Minnesota State Capitol is seen in this 2022 file photo. Legislation sent to the governor would immediately restore voting access to thousands in the state.

State lawmakers across the country appear poised this year to continue a trend of revisiting rules for granting voting rights to people who were convicted of a felony.

In Minnesota, where Democrats last year gained full control of state government, more than 50,000 people previously convicted of a felony are expected to immediately regain voting access following legislation that was recently sent to Gov. Tim Walz's desk. The law would restore voting rights after someone is no longer in custody; currently, former inmates need to complete all parts of their sentence, including parole and probation, before getting back access to the ballot.

This is just one of many state-level efforts in the U.S. to expand voting access to people with prior convictions.

Nicole Porter is the senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for restoration of voting rights for people with prior felony convictions. She said there is a lot of "momentum" following Minnesota's measure in states with similar pending legislation.

"Hopefully it gives inspiration to the other states," Porter said. "It's a very encouraging year."

In addition to Minnesota's bill, New Mexico lawmakers are debating similar legislation. Porter also flagged proposals in a number of states, including Nebraska, Oregon and Illinois, "with very strong prospects for 2023."

In Nebraska, people with a prior conviction have to meet a two-year waiting period after their sentence before they can get their voting rights back. Proposed legislation would automatically restore those rights after a completed sentence, which could affect about 20,000 Nebraskans.

Some Democratic-led states are exploring going further, with lawmakers in both Oregon and Illinois offering proposals that would see their states join the few places where incarcerated felons never lose the right to vote.

Access to the ballot following a felony conviction varies throughout the country. Currently, 11 states deny voting rights to people after they finish their full sentences, including parole and probation, with additional action required in some states.

Last year in the U.S. about 4.6 million people were unable to vote because of a past conviction, the Sentencing Project said, which was roughly 2% of the country's voting age population.

But Porter said since at least 1997, 25 states and Washington, D.C., have made changes to their laws that expand the vote to people who had been convicted of a felony.

And while almost 70 bills have been introduced throughout the country this year to restore voting rights to returning citizens, according to the left-leaning Democracy Docket, Porter said there are a few states considering rolling back rights for the formerly incarcerated.

"There are two conversations happening in the country," she said. "One is about expanding rights and then one about suppressing or undermining rights."

Lawmakers in Republican-led Indiana, for example, are considering legislation that would strip voting rights of anyone convicted of voter fraud for 10 years after a conviction, regardless of whether they are incarcerated. Currently, Indiana only disenfranchises individuals during their incarceration.

Porter said she is also watching Florida closely. In 2018, voters there approved a ballot measure restoring voting rights to most people who completed their prison sentences. However, Republican lawmakers in the state then passed a law requiring these returning citizens to fulfill every part of their sentence, including paying any fees or fines, in order to regain access to the ballot.

Lawmakers and state officials did not, however, create a database or system for the formerly incarcerated to check whether they had regained their rights. As a result, The Sentencing Project estimated last year that about 934,000 Floridians who had completed their sentences remained disenfranchised because of the state's law.

Overall, though, Porter said the general trend of legislation and proposed ballot measures around the country is moving toward expanding ballot access.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.