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I have a strong belief that, as U.S. citizens, we have the responsibility to take time to study the candidates and the issues and then go vote. Until you don’t have [that right], you do not realize the impact that it has on a person and their family. It strips you of the ability to be a complete citizen and provide for your family. -Jim Exline, Floridian and Hand v. Scott plaintiff represented by Fair Elections Center.
Reenfranchisement is critical to reintegration in society. In 2018, the Sentencing Project wrote in an amicus brief supporting a Fair Elections Center lawsuit in Florida that “[r]estoring the right to vote to citizens with prior felony convictions helps reintegrate those individuals into society … Civic engagement is pivotal in the transition from incarceration and discouraging repeat offenses. It stands to reason that restoration of the right to vote is among the most important ways to ensure reintegration in society and civic engagement.” The restoration of voting rights is a way to have a significant impact in improving the circumstances of low-income and underrepresented communities.
Fair Elections Center litigates cutting-edge voting rights cases in federal and state court, among other work. Even when a court decision does not rule in our favor, litigation often draws the public eye to injustices and inequities, which can result in legislative or regulatory remedies. Litigation makes injustice concrete for the public and educates affected communities about their rights and how to advocate for the restoration of their rights as U.S. citizens. The Center has been focused on rights restoration as an area where our litigators can have a real impact.
Several states, notably Florida, Kentucky, Iowa, and Arizona, have long lacked an objective and transparent system for helping people regain their right to vote, and the Center has had success with its pioneering legal advocacy for the restoration of voting rights for people who have completed their felony sentences. The Center’s lawyers have argued that the arbitrary nature of rights restoration violates the First Amendment and threatens returning citizens with biased or discriminatory treatment. Those making the decisions whether to restore the right to vote or not cannot be given such uncontrolled power under our Constitution, and this has been the conclusion of more than 80 years’ worth of Supreme Court decisions concerning other First Amendment-protected rights. Our cases strive to create non-arbitrary restoration systems marked by objective and uniform criteria and rules. In states without ballot initiative processes and where legislation on reenfranchisement has failed in the past, such as Kentucky, forcing a change in the rules of restoration by litigation is the best hope for restoring the right to vote to people who have already done everything the criminal justice system has required of them.
In Florida, the Center won an unprecedented ruling in 2018 that struck down Florida’s glacial and arbitrary process for granting or denying voting rights restoration to people who have served their felony sentences. Though this judgment became moot on appeal once an amendment to the Florida Constitution was adopted, the court’s decision was its own kind of victory. It was the first decision against a felon disenfranchisement and reenfranchisement scheme in over 30 years. That decision helped propel support for passage of Amendment 4, which was backed by 64.5% of the Florida’s voters and effected the restoration of voting rights to individuals upon completion of their sentences. The campaign for Amendment 4, with courageous leadership, strong partnerships and thousands of volunteers, was a historic success. The constitutional amendment’s passage also lit a spark for reform in other states: Colorado restored the voting rights of approximately 8,000 parolees, and Nevada’s legislature restored the voting rights of approximately 77,000 parolees and probationers. New York and Washington also enacted reforms.
Additionally, the Center has brought litigation concerning rights restoration in Kentucky, both in federal and state court. The Center continues to pursue these lawsuits, even after the recently-elected Democratic governor restored the right to vote to more than 100,000 people when he first took office, because his order left another 100,000 people still subject to an arbitrary and opaque process for rights restoration. We are exploring bringing similar litigation in other states.
How Donors Can Take Action
Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization that works to remove barriers to registration and voting, particularly those disenfranchising underrepresented and marginalized communities, and to improve election administration. The Center was established in 2017 as a 501(c)(3) organization and continues the work of the Fair Elections Legal Network. In addition to litigation, Fair Elections Center also works to help boost student democratic engagement, ensure a robust and diverse pool of poll workers to staff elections, and to otherwise support access to the ballot for all Americans. You can see much more about who we are and what we do at www.fairelectionscenter.org.