Voting Rights of Convicted Offenders
Defeat of Amendment To The Voting
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.
following data is taken from the Congressional Record, Feb. 14, 2002.
S.AMDT.2879 -- Amends: S.565 -- Sponsor: Sen Reid, Harry M.
To secure the Federal voting rights of certain
qualified persons who have served their sentences.
Amendment SA 2879 proposed by Senator Reid. CO-SPONSORS (2): Sens.
Arlen Specter & Russell D. Feingold
SA 2879 not agreed to in Senate by Yea-Nay Vote. 31 - 63.
Record Vote Number: 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,
-- 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:
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
(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
(2) Congress has ultimate supervisory power over
Federal elections, an authority that has repeatedly been upheld by the
(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
(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
(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
(12) The discrepancies described in this subsection
should be addressed by Congress, in the name of fundamental fairness and
(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:
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
ELECTION.--The term ``election'' means--
a general, special, primary, or runoff election;
a convention or caucus of a political party held to nominate a
a primary election held for the selection of delegates to a
national nominating convention of a political party; or
a primary election held for the expression of a preference for
the nomination of persons for election to the office of President.
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.
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
(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--
the individual's freedom of movement;
the payment of damages by the individual;
periodic reporting by the individual to an officer of the court;
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 --
is serving a felony sentence in a correctional institution or
is on parole or probation for a felony offense.
SEC. 504. ENFORCEMENT.
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.
PRIVATE RIGHT OF ACTION.--
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.
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
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.
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.
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.).
Parts of the Debate on the Senate floor
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
I feel that it is not only the right of every American to
vote. It is also their duty.
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
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
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
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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