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Monday, February 20, 2012

Voting rights for felons draws barbs

South Dakota

Voting rights for felons draws barbs

The state House of Representatives wants to bar people convicted of a felony who are not on probation or parole from voting until their time is served.

Inmates convicted of a felony and are incarcerated are not now allowed to vote and are removed from voter registration records; however, those on probation or parole, even if convicted of a felony, may vote.

House Bill 1247 is to be heard Wednesday in the Senate Local Government Committee.

Rep. Gene Abdallah, who helped introduce the bill, calls it “an attempt to level the playing field” between those who are convicted of a felony and are sentenced to serve time and those who are convicted of a felony but only receive probation or go on parole.

“If you’re convicted of a felony and sentenced to the penitentary, you lose your right to vote,” he said. “Presently, parolees and probationers can vote. All this bill says, is until you finish your sentence, i.e. parole or probation, you cannot vote just like in those in the institutions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Dakota calls the proposal “voter suppression.”

“This bill would move South Dakota back decades by denying an entire group of eligible voters the right to vote,” said Robert Doody, executive director of the ACLU of South Dakota. “The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights we all have as Americans, and any attempt to take away that right is suspect.”

Doody said the legislation is part of an ongoing nationwide voter “purge” ahead of a major federal election.

“This is part of Secretary of State Jason Gant’s ideas and theories that those who can speak and can vote need to be reduced,” he said. “This is really motivated by Secretary Jason Gant participating in a nationwide voter supression movement to supress especially racial minorities from voting. We know that felon disinfranchisement has a history of specifically supressing racial minority votes, and in our case, that would be American Indians.”

Native Americans would be affected to a greater degree because of disproportionately high numbers behind bars, the ACLU argues.

Some lawmakers questioned whether or not county auditors receive information on who is eligible to vote in a timely manner. Others asked about costs to the state.

Abdallah, who said he introduced the bill on behalf of Gant, said he doesn’t think there would be any additional cost.

Voter eligibilty lists now are updated daily, Gant said. The goal is to have same-day information regarding who is and is not eligible to vote, he said. Only county auditors can add or delete anyone from voter registration rolls.

Gant said the legislation was brought in response to questions and concerns from county auditors obout voter eligibility, in addition to a lawsuit filed a few years ago by ACLU against a former secretary of state, which alleged the state illegally removed voters from the registration list because of felony convictions that did not disqualify them to vote.

“We have this inequity here, where, depending on your judge, or other circumstances, could determine whether or not you keep or lose your right to vote,” Gant said. “With this legislation, it makes it very clear, that if you’re convicted of a felony, you lose your right to vote until you have completed your sentence.”

If the legislation becomes law, it would only impact those who are convicted of a felony on or after July 1 of this year, Gant said. Those who lose the right to vote must re-register once they are eligible again.

While the bill passed the House with a 51-18 vote, some lawmakers took issue with the timing of the legislation and questioned the reason behind it.

“It is interesting that exactly 10 years ago this Legislature debated this very issue and they decided to pass the existing law which has worked just fine for the last 10 years. I don’t know what the problem is that we want to change it at this time,” Rep. Bernie Hunhoff said during the hearing in the House. “I don’t know why we would want to restrict access to voting to anyone. I don’t suggest this is politically motived at all, but why risk another lawsuit at this time? ”

Hunhoff said prisoners incarcerated tend to feel isolated from society, and often wonder how they will get their feet back under them .

“Yeah, they did wrong, and some rights need to be removed, and they are removed when they are in prison, but this is one small right that you can give back to them to help them feel normal once they’re released from prison,” he said.

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