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PLN article mentioned on article re restoring felon voting rights

Lincoln Journal Star, May 3, 2017.

Local View: Restoring felon voting rights is constitutional, overdue


In 2005, I sponsored a bill (LB 53) to automatically restore the right to vote for former felons.

As it was originally drafted, the bill would have restored the right to vote once an individual completed his or her sentence. Once a sentence was complete and the debt to society paid, an individual who is a citizen of our state should have a voice in our democratic process.

It was a new notion at the time, and, to garner the support needed, I made a compromise to accept a two-year waiting period in order to secure enough votes from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs committee to advance the bill and allow the full Legislature to debate it.

Today, 18 states restore the right to vote upon completion of sentence, another 19 restore it earlier than that and two have no restriction on the right to vote if convicted.

Only 12 states make returning citizens wait longer, including Nebraska. LB 75, introduced by Sen. Justin Wayne, eliminates the two-year waiting period and brings this policy to what I intended more than 10 years ago.

Gov. Pete Ricketts chose to veto LB 75. While disappointed in his veto, I am baffled by his reasoning. He disagrees with proponents’ statement that civic engagement could positively impact rehabilitation and claims the current law is unconstitutional.

In 2012, Prison Legal News published a study by researcher David Reutter that showed a notable decrease in recidivism among those in Florida who had their right to vote restored compared to those who did not -- 12 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Certainly, there are a lot of factors that contribute to reintegration, like housing assistance, job training, education programming and food assistance. The right to vote is one component of reintegration, not the silver bullet. Nebraska has invested millions in reintegration programs. LB 75 is simply adding a new tool, civic engagement, to the package with no cost to the taxpayer.

The constitutional issue was raised 12 years ago when the Legislature was considering automatic restoration. Then-Deputy Attorney General Dale Comer wrote an analysis for Attorney General Jon Bruning which basically said the restoration might be legal and, then again, it might not. Gov. Dave Heineman may have relied on two former attorney general opinions when vetoing the legislation.

And those may be the same opinions on which Ricketts is relying. I would caution that those same two opinions are more than 15 years old and were written prior to the seminal case, State v. Spady, which upheld a statute challenged on a separation of powers issue.

In addition, two other opinions received by the committee at the time argued the bill was constitutional. Those opinions were from the Brennan Center for Justice and from a University of Nebraska law professor who made outstanding arguments in favor of its constitutionality.

As the Legislature considers a motion to override, I urge our state senators to remember that policies should be grounded in fact and serve those living and working in our communities.

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