Millions of Americans whose past felony convictions forbid them from casting ballots may regain voting rights under a bill introduced this week in Congress.
The Democracy Restoration Act of 2015, introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), would allow all former inmates to vote in elections for federal offices. Currently, the bill notes, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting. Three-fourths of them are finished serving their sentences and would have their voting rights restored if the bill becomes law.
"Disenfranchising citizens who have been convicted of a criminal offense and who are living and working in the community serves no compelling State interest and hinders their rehabilitation and reintegration into society," Conyers writes in the bill. He adds: "The United States is the only Western democracy that permits the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions."
The bill would not apply to elections for local and state offices. Currently, only Maine and Vermont do not restrict current or former inmates from voting, 35 states ban former inmates who are on parole from voting, 31 ban them while on felony probation, and 11 mandate lifetime voting bans in some cases, according to the bill.
The legislation would end a ban that disproportionately affects black Americans, who face disenfranchisement at four times the rate of non-black citizens.
"Just as poll taxes and literacy tests prevented an entire class of citizens, namely African Americans, from integrating into society after centuries of slavery, ex-offender disenfranchisement laws prevent people from reintegrating into society after they have paid their debt by serving time in prison," Conyers said in a statement, according to The Hill.
Getting former inmates invested in elections may take more than restoring their right to vote. According to a survey of former California inmates released in January by the Greenlining Institute, a nonprofit that advocates for racial and economic equality, many convicts “have been confused at some point about their eligibility to vote due to a criminal conviction."