The Surprising Voting Rights Issue Both Democrats and Republicans Support

04/03/2015 11:38 am ET | Updated Apr 03, 2015
Luke Sharrett via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- When it comes to restoring the landmark Voting Rights Act, Republican lawmakers don't seem to want anything to do with it.

The Supreme Court gutted a key portion of the law in 2013 and told Congress to provide a fix. But only a handful of Republicans support a House bill that would do so by specifying which states and localities with a history of minority voter suppression require extra scrutiny when changing their voting laws. In the Senate, Democrats still can't find a single GOP co-sponsor for their forthcoming bill.

But it turns out there is at least one voting rights issue that Republicans can get behind: reinstating voting rights to certain criminals after they get out of prison.

"Absolutely," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "I'm cool with a process that would allow you to get from there to here. I believe in second chances."

"I think if someone is judged to have completed their debt to society, then that's certainly something that should be seriously considered," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "I don't think someone -- if they paid their debt to society -- why they can't re-enter society."

He paused before adding, "Maybe that sounds like a liberal view."

Currently, the question of whether an ex-offender can vote in a state or federal election is largely determined by where the person lives. Some states permanently revoke voting rights for people convicted of a felony. Other states, like Maine and Vermont, never strip felons of their voting rights, even while they are in prison. Most states do restore voting rights to ex-felons after they have served their full sentence, but the process for registering again to vote can be burdensome.

These laws disproportionately affect people of color. According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 13 percent of African-American men nationwide have lost their right to vote because of past convictions.

Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, said that states are taking action on this front and the “general trajectory is to ease restrictions.” Since 1997, Brennan reports, at least 23 states have expanded voter eligibility or eased the process by which rights are restored.

Criminal justice reform is one of few areas with bipartisan support in Washington, D.C., and revisiting ex-offenders' voting rights could be a piece of it that gains traction. The issue is already bringing together strange bedfellows, like conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and civil rights activist Van Jones.

Mark Holden, general counsel and senior vice president for Koch Industries, told The Huffington Post, “We're big fans of people voting. We think it's important.”

He said the Kochs back the idea that certain non-violent drug offenders, especially the young, should have all statutory and constitutional rights restored -- including voting rights -- “unless the individual was convicted of voting fraud."

Jones, meanwhile, whose organization #Cut50 recently helped sponsor a bipartisan summit on criminal justice reform, said he has been "pleasantly surprised to hear how much passion some leaders on the right have for this idea of redemption."

The issue is also forging unusual alliances on Capitol Hill. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a potential 2016 presidential candidate, and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are co-sponsors of the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act of 2015, which would reinstate voting rights to nonviolent ex-offenders for federal elections, unless an individual is serving a sentence or a term of probation at the time of the election.

"A criminal record is currently one of the biggest impediments to voting in federal elections," Paul said in a statement. "The Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act will reform existing federal law and give low-level ex-offenders another opportunity to vote. This is an issue that I feel strongly about, and I will continue to fight for the restoration of voting rights in the hopes of giving non-violent ex-offenders a second chance."

Their bill doesn't have any other co-sponsors. But given the sentiments of Graham and McCain, for example, that may be more because it's not on people's radars right now.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told The Huffington Post he is interested in restoring voting rights for people who commit “lesser crimes.” He said he would take a look at the Paul-Reid bill and “see what I can do.”

Democrats are strongly behind the issue and have their own bill, the Democracy Restoration Act of 2015. It's got some heavy-hitters as co-sponsors, including Reid, Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Patrick Leahy (Vt.) and Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.). There's also a House version with broad Democratic support.

But that bill goes further than the Paul-Reid plan: It would restore voting rights for federal elections to anyone, including violent offenders, who is not incarcerated and serving a felony sentence at the time of the election. That appears to be a line Republicans won't cross, given that none are signed onto that bill in either chamber.

"Nobody wants a mass murderer back voting. Nobody wants a rapist back voting," said Graham. "There is totally a distinction."

“I’m not too excited about it for hard crimes," said Hatch.

Holden from Koch Industries said his sense is there isn’t an appetite for giving voting rights back to violent offenders in any of the bipartisan legislation supported by Democrats and Republicans.

But Sue Walitsky, a spokeswoman for Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the sponsor of the Democratic bill, said there are talks underway to bring supporters of the two bills together.

"We will continue discussions with Sen. Paul to try to bridge the divide between two similar pieces of legislation," said Walitsky.

HuffPost counted 10 Senate Republicans who are co-sponsors of at least one criminal justice reform bill, and reached out to all of them to see if they support restoring voting rights to ex-offenders. Besides Paul, Graham and Hatch, those senators include John Cornyn (Texas), Mike Lee (Utah), Ted Cruz (Texas), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Marco Rubio (Fla.) and David Perdue (Ga.).

Most didn't respond, though Perdue spokeswoman Megan Whittemore said state laws vary on restoring voting rights to criminals and it should stay that way.

"Senator Perdue does not believe that the federal government should intervene to preempt the ability of states to determine their own policies," said Whittemore.

Cardin did a little test recently to see what kind of support he'd get on a voting rights measure -- and he got decent results. During last week's Senate budget debate, he offered an amendment to fund an initiative to notify inmates of their voting rights and produce a report on the effect of criminal disenfranchisement laws on minorities. The vote was purely symbolic, but four Republicans supported it: Paul, Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.).

It might seem small, but for Cardin and Paul, it was a sign of hope for their voting rights legislation -- particularly since none of those Republicans, save Paul, are co-sponsors of criminal justice reform bills. In other words, they are fresh targets.

"The vote showed strong support for our proposition of restoring voting rights," said a Paul spokeswoman. "We are gaining momentum in the right direction."

Also on HuffPost:

27 Reasons Why U.S. Shouldn't Lead War On Drugs
Suggest a correction