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Voting Rights of Convicted Offenders
Defeat of Amendment To The Voting Rights Act Of 2001

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Posted On: February 18,2002          Updated On: February 23, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

Voting Rights of Convicted Offenders
Defeat of Amendment To The Voting Rights Act Of 2001

Summary:  On February 14, 2001 the Senate defeated (by a vote of 31 to 63 with 6 abstaining) an amendment to the federal Voting rights Act of 2001 that would have secured the rights of offenders who had served their full sentences to vote in federal elections.  The defeat of this bill is a set-back for drug courts and all people concerned about the rehabilitation of drug offenders.  This is a copy of the proposed amendment and substantive portions of the debate both pro and con.  A link to the congressional record for this amendment is provided.

<Read It In the congressional Record for February 14, 2002>

The following data is taken from the Congressional Record, Feb. 14, 2002.
S.AMDT.2879 -- Amends: S.565 -- Sponsor: Sen Reid, Harry M.
(submitted  2/14/2002) (proposed 2/14/2002)

AMENDMENT PURPOSE: 

To secure the Federal voting rights of certain qualified persons who have served their sentences.

STATUS: 

2/14/2002:  Amendment SA 2879 proposed by Senator Reid.  CO-SPONSORS (2):  Sens. Arlen Specter & Russell D. Feingold

2/14/2002:  Amendment SA 2879 not agreed to in Senate by Yea-Nay Vote. 31 - 63.  Record Vote Number: 31.

YEAS:  31  -- U.S. Senators supportive of restoring voting rights once sentence is served.  (Voting 'Yea' on Amendment SA 2879):  Akaka, Bingaman, Boxer, Cantwell, Cleland, Clinton, Corzine, Daschle, Dayton, DeWine, Durbin, Feingold, Hollings, Inouye,  Jeffords, Kennedy, Kerry, Kohl, Leahy, Levin, Lieberman, Lincoln, Mikulski, Miller, Murray, Reed, Reid, Santorum, Sarbanes, Specter,  Wellstone

NAYS:  63  -- U.S. Senators supportive of restoring voting rights once sentence is served.  (Voting 'Nay' on Amendment SA 2879):  Allard, Allen, Baucus, Bayh, Biden, Bond, Breaux, Brownback, Bunning, Burns, Byrd, Carnahan, Carper, Chafee, Cochran, Collins, Conrad, Craig, Crapo, Dodd, Dorgan, Edwards, Ensign, Enzi, Feinstein, Fitzgerald, Frist, Graham, Gramm, Grassley, Gregg, Hagel, Harkin, Helms, Hutchinson, Hutchison, Inhofe, Johnson, Kyl, Landrieu, Lott, Lugar, McCain, McConnell, Murkowski, Nelson (FL), Nelson (NE), Nickles, Roberts, Rockefeller, Schumer, Sessions, Shelby, Smith (NH), Snowe, Stabenow, Thomas, Thompson, Thurmond, Torricelli, Voinovich, Warner, Wyden

NOT VOTING:  6 -- U.S. Senators with no position on whether to restore voting rights once sentence is served.  (Not Voting on Amendment SA 2879):  Bennett, Campbell, Domenici, Hatch, Smith (OR), Stevens.

TEXT OF AMENDMENT AS SUBMITTED:

SA 2879.

Mr. REID (for himself, Mr. SPECTER, and Mr. FEINGOLD) proposed an amendment to the bill S.565, to establish the Commission on Voting Rights and Procedures to study and make recommendations regarding election technology, voting, and election administration, to establish a grant program under which the Office of Justice Programs and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice shall provide assistance to States and localities in improving election technology and the administration of Federal elections, to require States to meet uniform and nondiscriminatory election technology and administration requirements for the 2004 Federal elections, and for other purposes; as follows:

At the end, add the following:

TITLE V -- CIVIC PARTICIPATION
SEC. 501. FINDINGS AND PURPOSE.

(a) FINDINGS.--Congress makes the following findings:

(1) The right to vote is the most basic constitutive act of citizenship and regaining the right to vote reintegrates offenders into free society. The right to vote may not be abridged or denied by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, gender, or previous condition of servitude.  Basic constitutional principles of fairness and equal protection require an equal opportunity for United States citizens to vote in Federal elections. 

(2) Congress has ultimate supervisory power over Federal elections, an authority that has repeatedly been upheld by the Supreme Court. 

(3) Although State laws determine the qualifications for voting in Federal elections, Congress must ensure that those laws are in accordance with the Constitution.  Currently, those laws vary throughout the Nation, resulting in discrepancies regarding which citizens may vote in Federal elections. 

(4) An estimated 3,900,000 individuals in the United States, or 1 in 50 adults, currently cannot vote as a result of a felony conviction.  Women represent about 500,000 of those 3,900,000. 

(5) State disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact ethnic minorities. 

(6) Fourteen States disenfranchise ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences, regardless of the nature or seriousness of the offense. 

(7) In those States that disenfranchise ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences, the right to vote can be regained in theory, but in practice this possibility is often illusory.

(8) In 8 States, a pardon or order from the Governor is required for an ex-offender to regain the right to vote. In 2 States, ex-offenders must obtain action by the parole or pardon board to regain that right. 

(9) Offenders convicted of a Federal offense often have additional barriers to regaining voting rights.  In at least 16 States, Federal ex-offenders cannot use the State procedure for restoring their voting rights.  The only method provided by Federal law for restoring voting rights to ex-offenders is a Presidential pardon.

(10) Few persons who seek to have their right to vote restored have the financial and political resources needed to succeed. 

(11) Thirteen percent of the African-American adult male population, or 1,400,000 African-American men, are disenfranchised.  Given current rates of incarceration, 3 in 10 African-American men in the next generation will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetimes.  Hispanic citizens are also disproportionately disenfranchised, since those citizens are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

(12) The discrepancies described in this subsection should be addressed by Congress, in the name of fundamental fairness and equal protection. 

(b) PURPOSE.--The purpose of this title is to restore fairness in the Federal election process by ensuring that ex-offenders who have fully served their sentences are not denied the right to vote. 

SEC. 502. DEFINITIONS.

In this title:

(1)       CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION OR FACILITY.--The term "correctional institution or facility" means any prison, penitentiary, jail, or other institution or facility for the confinement of individuals convicted of criminal offenses, whether publicly or privately operated, except that such term does not include any residential community treatment center (or similar public or private facility).

(2)       ELECTION.--The term ``election'' means--

(A)       a general, special, primary, or runoff election; 

(B)       a convention or caucus of a political party held to nominate a candidate;

(C)       a primary election held for the selection of delegates to a national nominating convention of a political party; or

(D)       a primary election held for the expression of a preference for the nomination of persons for election to the office of President.

(3)       FEDERAL OFFICE.--The term "Federal office" means the office of President or Vice President, or of Senator or Representative in, or Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, Congress. 

(4)       PAROLE.--The term "parole" means parole (including mandatory parole), or conditional or supervised release (including mandatory supervised release), imposed by a Federal, State, or local court. 

(5) PROBATION.--The term "probation" means probation, imposed by a Federal, State, or local court, with or without a condition on the individual involved concerning--

(A)       the individual's freedom of movement;

(B)       the payment of damages by the individual;

(C)       periodic reporting by the individual to an officer of the court; or

(D)       supervision of the individual by an officer of the court.

SEC. 503. RIGHTS OF CITIZENS.

The right of an individual who is a citizen of the United States to vote in any election for Federal office shall not be denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense unless, at the time of the election, such individual --

(1)       is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or facility; or

(2)       is on parole or probation for a felony offense.

SEC. 504. ENFORCEMENT.

(a)       ATTORNEY GENERAL.--The Attorney General may bring a civil action in a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain such declaratory or injunctive relief as is necessary to remedy a violation of this title.

(b)       PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION.--

(1)       NOTICE.--A person who is aggrieved by a violation of this title may provide written notice of the violation to the chief election official of the State involved.

(2)       ACTION.--Except as provided in paragraph (3), if the violation is not corrected within 90 days after receipt of a notice provided under paragraph (1), or within 20 days after receipt of the notice if the violation occurred within 120 days before the date of an election for Federal office, the aggrieved person may bring a civil action in such a court to obtain the declaratory or injunctive relief with respect to the violation.

(3)       ACTION FOR VIOLATION SHORTLY BEFORE A FEDERAL ELECTION.--If the violation occurred within 30 days before the date of an election for Federal office, the aggrieved person shall not be required to provide notice to the chief election official of the State under paragraph (1) before bringing a civil action in such a court to obtain the declaratory or injunctive relief with respect to the violation.

SEC. 505. RELATION TO OTHER LAWS.

(a)       NO PROHIBITION ON LESS RESTRICTIVE LAWS.--Nothing in this title shall be construed to prohibit a State from enacting any State law that affords the right to vote in any election for Federal office on terms less restrictive than those terms established by this title. 

(b)       NO LIMITATION ON OTHER LAWS.--The rights and remedies established by this title shall be in addition to all other rights and remedies provided by law, and shall not supersede, restrict, or limit the application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (42 U.S.C. 1973 et seq.) or the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (42 U.S.C. 1973gg et seq.). 

 

Selected Parts of the Debate on the Senate floor

Amendment No. 2879

  Mr. REID. Mr. President, I recognize the work of Senators Dodd and 
McConnell, and others. Certainly they are the ones who run this 
committee and are responsible for bringing forward the legislation that 
is before the Senate and for crafting bipartisan legislation.
  The most fundamental premise of democracy--and that is one of the 
reasons we have this legislation before the Senate--is that every vote 
counts.
  The reality is that votes cast in wealthier parts of the country 
frequently count more than votes cast in poorer areas because wealthier 
districts have better, more accurate, more modern, and less error-prone 
counting machines than poorer precincts and districts. One can see in 
looking at a State, those counties within a State that have more money 
have more resources; they have better voting machines, more modern 
voting machines. The same is true in Nevada.
  Reality was thrust upon us, of course, during the 2000 Presidential 
election after which many Americans justly questioned the 
trustworthiness of our Nation's electoral process. But even though 
Florida was beaten up very badly, if that same light had been shone on 
other States, the same problems would have been seen, as far as I am 
concerned.
  In the last election I was involved in Washoe County, which is the 
second most populous county in the State of Nevada, a very good, well-
intentioned worker in the county in the election department thought she 
would save a little money and print their own ballots. They did that 
and saved some money. They did not go to the professional, the same 
company that sold them the voting machines.
  Well, come election time, some of the votes were not counted. They 
were off one-sixteenth of an inch or less, but the voting machine would 
not pick up that paper. So thousands of votes had to be hand counted 
once, twice, sometimes three times.
  In that same county, I can remember very clearly, it was a close 
election. I
 

[[Page S800]]
 

had won the election, and I get a call a week or two after the 
election--there is a recount going on. They found 3,000 ballots they 
had not counted. When the election is going to be decided by a few 
hundred votes, that gets your attention.
  The attention was focused on Florida, but it could have happened, I 
believe, in any of the 50 States. Florida may not have handled what 
they came up with very well after the fact, but I think we have to be 
considerate and understand that election problems have been around in 
this country for a long time. What this legislation will do is allow 
more fair elections, and I think that is so important.
  The United States is the oldest democracy in the world, but we can do 
better. We are an imperfect nation as I have said hundreds of times, 
imperfect but the best country, with the best of rules, by this little 
Constitution, best set of rules ever devised to rule the affairs of men 
and women.
  The bipartisan legislation that Senators Dodd and McConnell have 
crafted, while unable to address every single issue and every single 
problem that was exposed in 2000, takes a giant step in that direction. 
So I support the efforts of my colleagues from Connecticut and Kentucky 
and look forward to swift passage of this legislation, hopefully today.
  The amendment I have sent to the desk, and I am pleased to recognize 
that this is bipartisan legislation--I am very honored Senator Specter 
has joined with me in this legislation--and this is an issue that has 
not received the attention it deserves. Basically what this amendment 
does is ensure that ex-felons, people who have fully served their 
sentences, have completed their probation, have completed their parole, 
should not be denied their right to vote.
  When I am doing my morning run, I always listen to public radio. On 
public radio this morning, they had something called Heart to Heart. It 
is Valentine's Day and they had examples of different organizations 
doing nice things for people. I listened to these two law students, two 
women, who were counseling and trying to teach women who were in prison 
about the law. They went through the Constitution and taught about the 
First Amendment rights and such things. Interestingly, during that 
interview I heard this morning, the women said the one thing they 
wanted to talk about and the one thing that bothered them so much is 
they did not know they would not be able to vote when they got out of 
prison, and they focused on that. That means so much to an American to 
be able to vote.
 

  We do not have the voter turnout that we should have, but still it is 
a right that must be protected.
  My parents were uneducated. They knew how important it was to vote. I 
can remember my mother especially, there would be somebody on the 
ballot and she would say: I know him; Glen Jones.
  But she did not know Glen Jones. She had met Glen Jones at some 
political rally. But I thought she knew Glen Jones and she thought she 
knew Glen Jones. He was sheriff of Clark County.
  Mr. President, I want to tell my colleagues . . . how I became 
involved in this issue. Some will say there are a lot more important 
things to do, and maybe that is true. In Las Vegas, we have a radio 
station KCEP, in a predominantly, African American part of Las Vegas. I 
went there 1 day to spend an hour taking phone calls, and I made a very 
brief statement. I took my first call and a woman said:
 

       My brother committed a crime when he was a teenager. He 
     completed his probation and he is now a man in his fifties 
     and he cannot vote. He has never done anything wrong in his 
     life other than when he was a teenager. But, he cannot vote. 
     He supports his family. He pays his taxes. Why should he not 
     be able to vote?
 

  And that one phone call started for an hour people calling in saying: 
Senator Reid, can't you do something about that? They would give 
example after example.
  I could give scores of examples. I cannot remember everybody who 
called me on that radio station, but I have an e-mail that was sent to 
me that perhaps illustrates what these radio callers were talking 
about.
 

       Dear Senator Reid: I heard on the news this morning that 
     you are working on some legislation regarding the voting 
     rights of convicted felons. I have a felony conviction from 
     the sixties. I did my time, learned my lesson, and have been 
     a responsible citizen since then. I moved to Las Vegas in 
     1982 and have lived here since that time. I have been 
     employed all that time. I currently make over $60,000 per 
     year. I own two houses in Las Vegas and 40 acres of land in 
     Utah. I pay my fair share of taxes, both local and Federal, 
     and yet I have no say in my government. I suppose I could 
     hire a lawyer and try to get my civil rights back, but it is 
     very confusing. I would first have to petition California 
     where the offenses occurred, and then petition Nevada.
 

  I ask unanimous consent that this letter be printed in the Record.
  There being no objection, the letter was ordered to be printed in the 
Record, as follows:
 

       Dear Senator Reid: I heard on the news this morning that 
     you are working on some legislation regarding the voting 
     rights of convicted felons. I have a felony conviction from 
     the sixties. I did my time, learned my lesson, and have been 
     a responsible citizen since then. I moved to Las Vegas in 
     1982 and have lived here since that time. I have been 
     employed all that time, currently I gross over $60,000 per 
     year. I own two houses in Las Vegas and forty acres of land 
     in Utah. I pay my fair share of taxes, both local and federal 
     and yet I have no say in my government.
       I suppose I could hire a lawyer and try to get my civil 
     rights back. But it's very confusing. I would first have to 
     petition California where the offenses occurred and then 
     petition Nevada.
       I registered here when I first came to Nevada and got my 
     ex-felon card. I also registered to vote. In California I was 
     allowed to vote and I though it would be the same here. I did 
     vote for over ten years here and then a few years ago out of 
     the blue I received notice that I no longer could vote. I was 
     devastated. First off I could not see where it even made 
     sense, I was a working property owner who payed taxes and 
     obeyed the laws. (In the past thirty years I have two traffic 
     tickets and that's all). I still feel that I should have the 
     right to vote. I hope that you can accomplish something that 
     will allow me to have some say about the future of this great 
     country.
       I feel that it is not only the right of every American to 
     vote. It is also their duty.
       Thank you
                                         Melvin Douglas Miner, Jr.
 

Mr. REID. He closes by saying he has paid all his taxes and obeyed 
all the laws. The past 30 years he had two traffic tickets which he 
paid. He still believes he should have the right to vote. He says:
 

       I hope that you can accomplish something that will allow me 
     to have some say about the future of this great country. I 
     feel that it is not only the right of every American to vote, 
     it is also their duty.
 

  My constituent's name is Melvin Douglas Miner, Jr., and he is not 
embarrassed by the fact he has done this. He is rendering a service to 
the people of this country by allowing me to use his letter to me.
  There are examples after examples. A man came to me who is almost 80 
years old, a successful businessman in Las Vegas, with tears in his 
eyes, and said: I am going to close up my business and turn it over to 
my children.
  He said: I cannot vote. Every time the election time rolls around I 
make excuses to my children. I got married late in life. My children 
are asking me questions even today. I have been able to hide from them 
the fact that I do not vote is because I cannot vote. Could you do 
something about it?
  There are stories such as there all over. I don't condone people who 
commit felonies, but I recognize that when people pay their debt to 
society we should make them part of society. I am not saying the day a 
person gets out of prison they should be able to vote. But when he gets 
out of prison and has completed his parole and probation, let him vote.
  The right to vote in a democracy is the most basic right of 
citizenship. It is a right that may not be abridged or denied, by any 
State, race, color, gender, or position of servitude. It is a 
fundamental right. It is a glaring example of what our free society 
represents.
  Think about Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. 
Nelson Mandela as a young man spent his best years in prison. One would 
think for a man who spent 27 years in prison, many of those years in 
very squalid conditions, that the most important day of his life would 
have been walking out of that prison after 27 years, or maybe it was 
the day he became president of a post-apartheid South Africa. But that 
is not what he said. The great Nelson Mandela said the most important 
day of his life was the day he voted for the first time. Think about 
that.
 

[[Page S801]]
 

  Millions of people in America cannot vote. They have completed their 
debt to society. As elected officials who have been given the privilege 
to serve, we need to recognize the strength of a democracy depends on 
voluntary participation of its citizens. Low voter turnout is not 
something we should be proud of; certainly we should not compound that 
by having people who have fulfilled their debt to society not be 
allowed to vote.
  States have different rules as to when a person can vote if a person 
committed a felony. In 14 States, ex-felons who have served their 
sentence, including parole on probation, are denied a right to vote; 
the 36 other States have various rules. But it adds up to hundreds of 
thousands and millions of people. Fundamental fairness dictates this 
policy is wrong.
  The amendment that the senior Senator from Pennsylvania and I have 
introduced today aims to correct this injustice. In these 14 States and 
other States, the process by which individuals who have fully served 
their sentences and wish to regain their right to vote is often 
difficult and cumbersome. Some may have to petition a board and get a 
pardon. For others, Governors can give them the right to vote. In some 
States, ex-felons who have completed their sentences must obtain a 
Presidential pardon. As every Member knows, very few people have the 
financial or political resources needed.
  This disproportionally affects ethnic minorities. According to the 
Sentencing Project, an estimated 13 percent of adult African Americans 
throughout the United States are unable to vote as a result of varying 
State disenfranchisement laws. The rate is, unbelievably, seven times 
the national average.
  In some States, the numbers are more extraordinary. In Florida and 
Alabama, more than 31 percent of all African American men are 
permanently barred from ever voting in those States again. In six other 
States, the percentage of African American men permanently 
disfranchised is over 20 percent. Given current rates of incarceration, 
the Sentencing Project estimates that up to 40 percent of African 
American men may permanently lose their right to vote.
  I want to make sure that not lost in this debate is the fact that 
criminal activity is wrong and must be punished and punished severely. 
I am for the death penalty. I introduced, in the State of Nevada, 
legislation that said if you are convicted of a crime and sentenced to 
life without possibility of parole, that is what it should mean. It 
should not mean a person gets out in 20 or 30 years. If a jury, with 
the approval of a judge, sentences somebody to life without the 
possibility of parole, that is what it should mean.
  I believe in strict enforcement of the law. However, I also believe a 
sentence is a sentence, and when a judge gives somebody 10 years and 
they get out in 5 years, after 5 years of parole and any probation time 
they should be able to be voters in the State of Nevada and the rest of 
this country. Sufficient and appropriate sentences should be imposed 
upon those who violate our laws. We should not, however, disenfranchise 
those who have fully completed their prescribed sentences.
  We have a saying in this country: If you do the crime, you have to do 
the time. I agree with that. But if you do the time, and do it 
completely, why should you have to do more time?

 

Mr. REID. As I am sure the manager of the bill knows well, the State 
of Connecticut recently voted to guarantee all ex-felons on probation 
the right to vote.
  Nonetheless, the amendment Senator Specter and I have crafted is 
narrow in scope. It does not extend voting rights to prisoners. Some 
States do that. I don't believe in that. It does not extend voting 
rights to ex-felons on parole, even though 18 States do that. It does 
not extend voting rights to ex-felons on probation, even though some 
States do that. This legislation simply restores the right to vote to 
those individuals who have completely served their sentences, including 
probation and parole.
  Finally, this legislation would only apply to Federal elections, but 
it would set an example for the rest of the States to follow what we do 
in Federal elections.
  Even though we have delegated to the States time, place, and 
authority, Congress has retained the ultimate authority with ample 
precedent to set qualifications for Federal elections. We did that with 
motor-voter registration and others.
  The revolutionary patriot, Thomas Paine, said: The right of voting 
for representatives is the primary right by which all other rights are 
protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for 
slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he also 
has not a vote in the election of representatives in this case.
  We must do away with Thomas Paine's definition of slavery. People 
should be able to vote when they have done their time. When Mr. Miner 
of Las Vegas wrote to me about the fact that he could no longer vote 
even though he has been a model citizen for 30 years, I am sure he felt 
and still feels as did Thomas Paine. Those people who called me at KCEP 
radio, know in their heart that something is wrong. They and their 
relatives and friends have done their time. They have done enough. They 
should be able to vote.
  This bipartisan amendment, in many ways is similar to the bipartisan 
compromise reached by Senators Dodd and McConnell. It does not go as 
far as some people would like, but it is certainly a giant step in the 
right direction. I hope the Members of this Senate would rally around 
this amendment and allow it to become law.
 

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Kentucky.
 

Mr. McCONNELL. Mr. President, with all due respect to my colleague 
from Nevada, this is an issue for the States, not the Federal 
Government. Voter qualification is generally a power the Constitution 
leaves within the prerogative of the States. The Constitution grants 
States broad power to determine voter qualification. It is highly 
doubtful that Congress has constitutional authority to pass legislation 
preempting the states with regard to this issue.
 

  The Ford/Carter Commission agrees with this assessment. The 
Commission concluded, ``we doubt that Congress has the constitutional 
power to legislate a federal prescription'' on States prohibiting 
felons from voting.
  In 1974 the Supreme Court held that convicted felons do not have a 
fundamental right to vote, and that excluding convicted felons from 
voting does not violate the Constitution. Federal courts have 
consistently dismissed lawsuits aimed at letting prisoners vote. One 
court even concluded that the facial validity of felon voting 
restrictions may be ``absolute.''
  Only two States do not impose restrictions on the voting rights of 
felons. In fourteen States, felons convicted of a crime may lose the 
right to vote for life. Congress should not interpose itself between 
the States and their people. As the Ford/Carter Commission said in 
their report:
 

       [W]e believe the question of whether felons should lose 
     their right to vote is one that requires a moral judgement by 
     the citizens of each state.
 

  This proposed amendment frankly, should fail on the merits. When a 
person is convicted of a felony, that person should lose their right to 
vote. Convicted felons have been denied various privileges granted to 
other citizens going all the way back to ancient Rome and Greece.
  Voting is a privilege; a privilege properly exercised at the voting 
booth, not from a prison cell. States have a significant interest in 
reserving the vote for those who have abided by the social contract 
that forms the foundation of a representative democracy. We are talking 
about rapists, murderers, robbers, and even terrorists or spies. Do we 
want to see convicted terrorists who seek to destroy this country 
voting in elections? Do we want to see convicted spies who cause great 
damage to this country voting in elections? Do we want to see 
``jailhouse blocs'' banding together to oust sheriffs and government 
officials who are tough on crime?
  Those who break our laws should not have a voice in electing those 
who make and enforce our laws. Those who break our laws should not 
dilute the vote of law-abiding citizens. Fundamentally, Mr. President, 
as a former Governor yourself, this is a decision made in each State by 
the Governor, as to whether or not to restore the rights of convicted 
felons. But in any event, it seems to me a Federal prescription in this 
area, just as the Ford/Carter Commission concluded, is not appropriate. 
So I hope we will not seek to preempt this area of State law in the 
course of our action on election reform legislation.
 

Mr. President, I know also Senator Sessions wishes to speak on this 
issue. I think he will be here shortly. I yield the floor and suggest 
the absence of a quorum.
 

Mr. REID. Mr. President, the statement of the Senator from Kentucky 
is very typical of what happens in instances such as this. We have a 
situation where we have now 36 States that allow felons the right to 
vote in various but limited ways. I went over some of them. This 
legislation simply is to correct what I believe are some problems in 
the law.
  In Federal elections, people who have the same qualifications should 
be able to vote. As I have said, 36 States already allow ex-felons to 
vote.
  It is easy to talk about terrorists and rapists and all that. But the 
point is that people who are convicted of crimes serve time. Sometimes 
they serve a lifetime. Those people can't vote. Sometimes people serve 
30, 40 years. Sometimes they serve 10 years. Sometimes they are on 
parole for many years. Sometimes they are convicted and they never go 
to jail; they are on probation. Whatever the sentence, they should 
serve it completely. But when they have done so, these people should be 
able to vote.
  It is easy to incite people, saying this is so terrible. Thirty-six 
States allow ex-felons to vote right now. Is this such a wave-breaking 
issue?
  I think it would be a terrible shame if we sent a message to millions 
of people in America today--people such as Mr. Miner, who in the 1960s 
did something wrong, but has since been a good citizen. We have a lot 
of people who would be better citizens if they could vote.
  Categories of felons disenfranchised under State law--some States 
even allow people in prison who are felons the right to vote. That is 
the way it is today. Some States allow people to vote when they are on 
probation. Some States allow people to vote when they are on parole.
  I am not doing that. I am saying a person who has completed his 
sentence and has completed his probation and parole should be able to 
vote. So I think it is really out of line for my friend from Kentucky 
to raise all these irrelevant issues, suggesting this is some big new 
deal that is going to cause problems. My amendment will allow millions 
of people to vote who deserve to vote.
  It goes without saying that one reason this legislation has not been 
embraced much earlier is that some people are afraid--afraid of unfair 
and irrational statements made such as those by the Senator from 
Kentucky. But the fact is all these bad people who are sentenced and 
jailed shouldn't be able to vote. I said that. But let us not confuse 
the issue. Once somebody is out of prison and they have completely 
finished their parole and probation, let them vote. It's the right 
thing to do.
 

The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.
 

Mr. SESSIONS. Mr. President, I would like to share some thoughts on 
an issue of some importance, both as it relates to the traditional role 
between the States and the Federal Government and with regard to the 
constitutional role between the Federal and State governments, and then 
some personal insight into the idea that people who have been convicted 
of felonies in this country should be mandated the right to vote by the 
Federal Government in States that may not agree with that idea.
  Frankly, people who violate felony laws--this does not include 
juvenile crimes, it does not include traffic offenses, it doesn't 
include DUIs, and it doesn't include petty theft and small drug 
offenses. It deals with people who have felony convictions, many of 
whom have served time in jail. Historically, we have referred to those 
people as being outside the law or, in short, outlaws. All the way 
through the beginning of the United States of America, we have believed 
that a person who violates serious laws of a State or the Federal 
Government forfeits their right to participate in those activities of 
that government, that their judgement and character is such that they 
ought not to be making decisions on the most important issues facing 
our country. Virtually every State in this country takes that position 
to one degree or another.
 

  As a prosecutor for 15 years, I wonder about how those people I 
helped put in the slammer feel about me. I do not care about them 
voting on my election. Would it intimidate or discourage or diminish 
the ability of judges who run for election? Or would a prosecutor who 
runs for election in some way not be as aggressive? Would it be a 
concern to them? Would it allow votes to occur against a strong law-
and-order candidate that might not otherwise occur? I do not know.
  But, for a lot of reasons, our States have decided they do not want 
to give felons, people who have committed serious offenses in this 
Nation, the right to vote. That is a common practice in virtually every 
State in America where they have some restrictions on it.
  Sometimes what we do in this Chamber is argue about what we have the 
power to do. But the other question is, What ought we to do? I think 
this Congress, with this little debate we are having on this bill, 
ought not to step in and, with a big sledge hammer, smash something we 
have had from the beginning of this country's foundation--a set of 
election laws in every State in America--and change those laws. To just 
up and do that is disrespectful to them.
  At this very moment, in States throughout America, legislatures are 
discussing under what circumstances felons should or should not be 
allowed to vote. Some are allowing them to vote in any number of 
different ways, under certain circumstances, based on what crimes they 
may have committed, how long they served in jail, how long they have 
been out of jail, whether or not they seek a pardon and get it, whether 
or not they have been rearrested. Whatever they decide to do, it is 
going on in those legislatures.
  We have not had hearings, to my knowledge, on this subject.
  I am on the Judiciary Committee, which normally deals with those 
issues. We have not had hearings. We have not had anything but an 
amendment appear in this Chamber on this subject. It would be unwise 
for us to presume, after such a short debate, that we ought to just 
override the laws in every State in America. We should not do that out 
of respect for them.
  Most Americans are familiar with President Ford's and President 
Carter's work together on any number of issues--a Republican President 
and a Democratic President. They have had some discussion about these 
issues. They had a commission that dealt with voting issues. They 
concluded--I will quote from their report--``we doubt that Congress has 
the Constitutional power to legislate a federal prescription'' on 
States prohibiting felons from voting.
  In other words, they doubt that this Congress has the constitutional 
power--not a question of deference or propriety--to do this.
  That was a bipartisan commission with two of our elder statesmen for 
whom people in this country have great respect.
  The Supreme Court, in 1974, specifically held that felons do not have 
a fundamental right to vote and that excluding felons from voting does 
not violate the U.S. Constitution. That is clear law from the Supreme 
Court of the United States in 1974, and it has not been altered since.
  Another Federal court has even concluded that the facial validity of 
felon voting restrictions may be ``absolute.''
  So there may be one or two States that impose no restrictions on 
voting, but the overwhelming majority do. And they have given thought 
to it. Each State has different standards based on their moral 
evaluation, their legal evaluation, their public interest in what they 
think is important in their States. That is what I believe we should 
do. We should follow that.
  When we allow a brief moment of debate to alter State historic 
principles on issues of complexity such as this, we are really stepping 
beyond our bounds.
  I want to stay on the point a little bit about the propriety, about 
the deference, about the respect this Congress
 

[[Page S804]]
 

should give to States. Yes, there are certain steps we take when we 
believe it is in the overwhelming national interest--particularly when 
there is a need to have uniformity in rules and regulations--to pass 
some regulation for health or safety, such as for railroad width or 
whatever we decide to do. Those things are justified.
  But it ought not to come up with some last-minute vote without in-
depth hearings, without hearing from secretaries of States around the 
country, without hearing from State legislators who may have voted on 
it last month or may have voted on it last year and discussed these 
very issues and debated them within their States. And we come in now, 
and we are going to tell them: We do not care what you think. We do not 
care about your debates. We have not had debate here, but we are going 
to change our mind. We are going to change the law of America. And 
anybody who committed acts of murder, burglaries--whatever they did--
serious drug offenses, drug dealing, they can all vote now in America.
  I am not for that. Somebody else may be. That is a good matter to 
debate. The question is, Where should it be debated? I say it should be 
debated where it has always been debated: In the States of America. 
They have set the voting qualifications for our voters, except for 
certain major requirements that the Constitution places on them and 
Federal law requires. But this should not be an expansion now into this 
category of voting. I strongly oppose it. I think it is a big-time 
mistake. It is a rush job. It is disrespectful to the hundreds, 
thousands of State legislators who deal with these issues regularly.
  We have not had any serious suggestion, to my knowledge, that the 
voting process is being gummed up over this rule. It seems to be 
working well. Each State has its own system for identifying felons and 
informing them that they are not qualified to vote. To change that now 
on this bill would be a terrible step. It is something we would regret. 
If you believe President Ford and President Carter in the commission 
they established, it would be reversed by the Supreme Court of the 
United States as being unconstitutional.
  When we pass legislation in this Chamber, we have sworn to uphold the 
Constitution. If we have evidence that it is unconstitutional, we ought 
not to pass it on that basis, also. So as a matter of policy, respect, 
and constitutional law, it ought not to be voted for.
  Frankly, I do not think the American debate and American policy is 
going to be better informed if we have a bunch of felons in this 
process as opposed to them not being in this process. That is my 2 
cents' worth.

 

Mr. SPECTER. Mr. President, I have sought recognition to speak in 
support of legislation which has been offered by the Senator from 
Nevada, Mr. Reid, and myself. Carefully and narrowly crafted, it would 
authorize ex-felons who have served any prison sentence--for 
misdemeanors as well--who have fully served their prison sentence, and 
any parole or probation, to have the right to vote in Federal 
elections.
  The statistics are that there are only 15 States, and the District of 
Columbia, that have a prohibition limiting all felons from voting. The 
balance of the 50 States have various provisions that allow ex-convicts 
to vote in a variety of circumstances. Four States--Utah, Vermont, 
Massachusetts, and Maine--even allow felons to vote while they are in 
prison; 14 States, and the District of Columbia, only prohibit felons 
from voting when in prison; 32 States prohibit felons from voting while 
on probation and/or on parole.
  This amendment would authorize ex-convicts who have fully paid their 
debt to society to vote in Federal elections, leaving the matter for 
State elections to be determined by the State.
  It is my view that this provision would aid ex-convicts in being 
reintegrated into society and would be a fair provision on the basic 
proposition that these people have fully paid their debt to society. I 
say this with some experience in the field, having been in the 
prosecution line for some 12 years--8 years as district attorney of 
Philadelphia, and 4 years before that as an assistant district 
attorney. In those positions--especially in my early days as an 
assistant district attorney--having had the opportunity to interview 
many individuals incarcerated in jail, the first job I received as 
chief of the appeals, pardons, and parole section of the Philadelphia 
district attorney's office was interviewing inmates who were under the 
death penalty, where an application had been made for commutation.
  Candidly, it was quite an experience to go to death row and talk to 
men and women who were under the death penalty--to talk about the 
offenses for which they had been convicted, talk about what they had 
done in prison, what they had done by way of trying to rehabilitate 
themselves, their reasons for believing they were worthy of having the 
judgment of sentence of death changed.
  In the prosecutor's office, it seemed to me that our criminal justice 
system was not directed in the most efficient way at protecting the 
public, and that would be to provide for life sentences for career 
criminals. If you found somebody who was a career criminal--by that, I 
mean someone convicted of three or more serious offenses--then they get 
a life sentence. If, on the other hand, you deal with everybody else 
who is going to be released from jail--and that would be especially 
juveniles, but anybody else who is released from jail and comes back 
into society--there, with the rates of recidivism, repeat offenders, 
society is at risk.
  It seemed to me--and I worked on this while being district attorney 
of Philadelphia, and since in the Senate--we needed to provide what I 
call realistic rehabilitation. By that, I mean literacy training and 
job training. If we had this division between career criminals, who 
commit about 70 percent of the crimes, and the other individuals who 
are going to be released into society, and made a real effort at 
rehabilitation with job training and literacy training so they can 
reenter the community, my professional judgment is that we could reduce 
violent crime in America by some 50 percent.
  I think giving an ex-convict who has paid his or her debt to society 
the right to vote would be of significant and material assistance to 
reintegrating that person into society. When somebody comes out of 
jail, it is obviously a tough line to make it on the outside, and there 
is a matter of self-worth. There is a matter of where the person stands 
in society, if society says to that individual, You have paid your 
debt; we want you to come back and be a law-abiding citizen, and one 
facet of recognition of your having paid your debt to society is that 
you are restored in your citizenship the right to vote.
 

  Some have said: What if you are dealing with a rapist? Or what if you 
are dealing with a terrorist? Or what if you are dealing with a 
murderer? What if you are dealing with somebody who has had a bad 
record of violence?
  The criminal justice system has evaluated that person. That person 
has gone through a trial, and that person has been adjudicated guilty. 
That is the verdict. Then there has been a sentence. Sometimes the 
sentence is the death penalty. We are seeing more and more people who 
have been sentenced to death or for long periods of imprisonment being 
exonerated through DNA tests.
  Whatever the procedure is, however the person has been adjudicated by 
the criminal justice system, once that person has served the sentence 
and is out of jail, once that person has served probation or parole, as 
far as the criminal justice system is concerned, that individual has 
paid his or her debt to society.
  Having paid the debt to society, which is the common parlance term, 
that individual owes nothing more to society. That person, I believe, 
ought to have the right to vote.
  The amendment has been crafted so that it covers only Federal 
elections, and I think that is a sensible distinction because the 
Congress of the United States controls voting procedures in Federal 
elections.
 

[[Page S805]]
 

  The election reform bill we have before us today is a very 
significant bill. It will address the concerns we had after the 
elections in the year 2000 when we had the question of the chads and 
what were people's intent to vote, and try to produce an electoral 
system which is calibrated and calculated to reflect the intent of the 
voters when they do vote.
  The bill also seeks to deal with widespread problems of fraud where 
some people vote in more than one polling place; some people are not 
entitled to vote. When I was district attorney of Philadelphia, that 
was a particular problem I had. Philadelphia is a rough, tough city, 
probably challenged only by Chicago, IL--that might attract the 
attention of the Presiding Officer. Chicago and Philadelphia have had, 
I think, unique problems with voter fraud. As DA, I worked on that a 
great deal, and I am glad to see this bill seeks to address that 
problem.
  The amendment I am addressing has a specific focus on people who have 
paid their debt to society. It makes sense. I think they are entitled 
to vote, to have their civil rights restored, and it could be very 
significant in reintegrating that person into society, saying to that 
person: You have paid your debt; we recognize you as a law-abiding 
citizen; you have a duty to remain a law-abiding citizen; we will try 
to assist on the rehabilitation, try to avoid your repeating a crime, a 
recidivist, and this is reintegration into society.
  I am pleased to join the distinguished Senator from Nevada as being a 
cosponsor of this amendment.

 

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Nevada.
 

Mr. REID. Mr. President, if I can from this place in the Chamber, I 
extend my appreciation to my friend from Pennsylvania and also 
recognize the fact that a good part of his professional life was spent 
putting people in jail. He was a very successful prosecutor who sent 
scores of people to prison for long periods of time.
  Mr. SPECTER. If I may interrupt my distinguished colleague, scores is 
a vast understatement. We had 500 homicides a year in Philadelphia. We 
had some 30,000 cases a year. When I left the DA's position in January 
of 1974, I had 165 assistant DAs. We put people in jail in enormous 
numbers--robbers, rapists, murderers. I tried a good many of those 
cases myself, 4 years as an assistant DA. I was in the trial courts and 
appellate courts while DA. I prosecuted murder cases and rape cases.
  The problem of violence in America today is overwhelming. In a city 
like Philadelphia, it is an overwhelming problem. It is also an 
overwhelming problem in a city like Chicago. I know Las Vegas is a more 
law-abiding town, and Reno, NV.
  We have to tackle head on this problem of violent crime. I would like 
to see us address more of our attention between dividing career 
criminals, who commit 70 percent of the crimes, and throw away the 
book--they ought to be in jail for life; I wrote the armed career 
criminal bill which passed the Senate providing for life sentences for 
career criminals caught in possession of a firearm--and the balance of 
realistic rehabilitation, job training, literacy training, and 
recognizing them as citizens.
  I thank my colleague from Nevada for being the originator of this 
idea of giving them the right to vote, to help them be reintegrated.
 

Mr. REID. Mr. President, I say to my friend from Pennsylvania, the 
reason I mentioned this, historically he is one of the prosecutors we 
know about in this country. I say that because the two sponsors of this 
legislation are not people who are soft on crime. I, personally, as I 
stated earlier today, when I was in the State legislature, introduced 
legislation to make life without the possibility of parole mean what it 
says; that if you are sentenced to life without the possibility of 
parole, that is what it should be.
  I want the record to be spread with the fact that Reid and Specter 
are for tough sentencing. We will do everything we can to put people in 
prison and jail who deserve to be in prison and jail. They should 
complete their sentences, but after that has been done and they have 
paid their debt to society, shouldn't they have the right to vote? That 
is what it is all about.
 

Mr. SPECTER. I thank my distinguished colleague from Nevada for those 
kind remarks. It surprised me. When I complimented him earlier, I did 
not know he was in the Chamber. I would have been just as effusive in 
my compliments, but to have him on the Republican side and to find him 
on the back bench is a surprise.
  I will be glad to work with Senator Reid on this amendment. I yield 
the floor.

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