Carson City – According to Restore Your Vote, some 90,000 Nevadans cannot vote due to past felony convictions. The Brennan Center for Justice estimates more than 6 million Americans are unable to vote because of a felonious past.
Felonies are major crimes that range in severity from premeditated murder to tax evasion. Sentences run from the death penalty to a few years in prison, as opposed to time in a city or county jail for a misdemeanor or minor crime, but felonies come with post-conviction consequences.
There is no federal law that affects a felon’s civil rights. State laws decide whether felons can vote, serve on juries, own firearms or hold public office, for instance. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote and are allowed to vote from prison, but according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Nevada is one of the 13 most restrictive states when restoring felon voting rights.
In Nevada, voting disenfranchisement laws are complicated. Before 2003, all felony convictions came with lifetime disenfranchisement in Nevada. Today, Nevadans with first-time felony convictions typically have their voting rights automatically restored upon completion of their sentence, but more serious “category A” and “category B” felonies require an individual to petition the court in order to restore their voting rights.
Category A felonies include murder, kidnapping and sexual assault, among many. Category B felonies include crimes such as securities fraud, conspiracy to commit murder, battery with intent to kill, food poisoning, mayhem, and a host of firearm and explosive infractions.
Failing to earn an honorable discharge from parole or probation also results in lifetime disenfranchisement, but that condition is set to change on January 1, 2019.
In June of 2017, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed Assembly Bill 181, which will effectively restore voting rights to thousands of Nevadans. In short, AB 181 rolls back the lifetime disenfranchisement of felons who fail to earn an honorable discharge from parole or probation; and certain category B felonies will no longer result in a lifetime ban from the ballot box.
In 2011, Governor Sandoval vetoed Assembly Bill 301, a measure that would have changed the law to automatically restore the voting rights of all felons who complete their sentences.
For Anthony Ritosa, northern Nevada organizer for Restore Your Vote, a change in law is needed in Nevada, but until then, he and his colleagues will continue to help those who wish to have their voting rights restored. We spoke with Anthony Ritosa by phone …
Anthony Ritosa said Restore Your Vote has helped 400 Nevadans in the past month and added that the group launched its webtool, RestoreYourVote.org, in August, and since then over 17,000 people have spent more than 4 minutes each using the online toolkit to help them learn more about restoring their right to vote. The site contains voter restoration information on all 50 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico. Ritosa said democracy is weakened when some people are not full citizens.
“We like to say our political system is only really free and fair when we’re hearing from all its citizens,” Ritosa said. “These are people who have paid their debt to society. They have reentered society. They’re working. They’re paying taxes. These people deserve a say in the public policy that affects their lives.”
According to Restore Your Vote some 17 million felons can vote in the next election but don’t know it. Anthony Ritosa sees his work in northern Nevada as largely outreach and education.
“Once your sentence is complete, a lot of people have their voting rights restored automatically, and they just don’t know about it,” Ritosa said. “Other people can petition the courts to restore their voting rights, and that can be a bit of a complicated process as the law is in Nevada, and we are connecting folks with free legal support with lawyers who want to help them out, pro-bono, to figure out that petition process.”
A central and damning criticism of felony disenfranchisement is that it disproportionately affects communities of color. The fight for inclusive elections in the United States is old and ongoing, and according to the the Brennan Center for Justice, one in every 13 voting-age African Americans have lost their right to vote, four times the rate for all other Americans.
Recidivism and re-entry
Numerous studies show the restoration of felon voting rights helps with re-entry into society and reduces the recidivism rate, a policy Ritosa says enhances public safety and strengthens the democratic process.
“We’re talking about almost 90,000 Nevadans who have their voting rights disenfranchised, and 62,00 of them are post-sentence, meaning that they specifically have a path to restore their voting rights,” Ritosa explained. “It is so important that these people don’t feel that they can’t become citizens again. They don’t deserve to be treated like second class citizens after paying their debt to society.”
For more from Anthony Ritosa, listen to the audio interview embedded above …