Omaha senator again pushes to restore ex-felons’ voting rights
Two years ago, Sen. Justin Wayne’s bill to restore voting rights to ex-felons who had completed their sentences passed three rounds of consideration and was sent to the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts.
But Wayne, who convinced 36 senators to vote for the bill at different points of debate, was unable to muster enough support in the Legislature to override a Ricketts veto.
On Wednesday, the Omaha senator said he would try again to eliminate Nebraska’s two-year waiting period before ex-felons can exercise their right to vote, calling it a painful reminder of institutional racism both in the state and across the country.
“We are trying to erase a dark, dark period when we first became a state,” Wayne told the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee during a lengthy and sometimes emotional hearing on his revived bill (LB83).
Shortly after Nebraska was admitted as the 37th state, lawmakers in 1871 proposed banning felons from voting, an idea brought to the Cornhusker state from the south. The provision was later included in the 1875 state constitution.
The 1920 state constitutional convention led to a law that says “no person shall be qualified to vote … who has been convicted of treason or felony under the laws of the state or of the United States, unless restored to civil rights.”
State senators in 2005 struck a deal giving ex-felons the right to vote after a two-year waiting period -- modeled on a similar law passed in Texas -- a compromise Wayne called “an arbitrary number that needs to be erased.”
Surrounding states have all taken steps to re-enfranchise former convicts, and in 2018, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for felons -- convicted murderers and sex offenders excluded.
Wayne said studies have shown restoring civil rights to ex-felons helps them successfully re-enter society and prevents them from re-offending.
“Allowing people to participate in their civic duty, the ability to vote, cuts down on the recidivism rate,” Wayne said. “Not only do we need this as a way to correct the past, but it’s a way to make sure going forward we have less people in prison and that they are a productive part of society.”
Shakur Abdullah of Omaha, who two years ago told the committee he was not able to vote after having served more than four decades behind bars for a felony he committed as a teenager, on Wednesday tearfully said he finally cast the first ballot of his life last year.
“It was the most uplifting, cathartic thing I’ve participated in since my release,” Abdullah said.
While he had obtained employment and found a place to live after leaving prison, Abdullah said the one thing that eluded him was the chance to participate in the democratic process.
Telling the committee that if his tax money was good enough for the government to take, Abdullah added “my vote should be, too,” and called the right to vote “the most restorative justice measure that can be done to include people back in society.”
Jason Ables, a former Lincoln restaurant owner who served 14 months in prison for possessing drug-dealer levels of marijuana, told the committee he watched the results of the 2016 elections from behind bars, knowing that in other states, he could have received an absentee ballot.
He urged the committee to advance Wayne’s bill, but to think about what education and programming about voting rights could do for those convicted in Nebraska.
Several conversations during Wednesday’s committee meeting focused on the constitutionality of restoring voting rights to ex-felons.
Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers asked several supporters -- no one spoke in opposition or in a neutral capacity during the 2½-hour hearing -- to what level the Legislature can restore the civil rights of citizens.
The Nebraska Board of Pardons has the authority to restore all civil rights by issuing a pardon, while the Legislature has the authority to restore some civil rights. Hilgers noted that did not include restoring all rights or in commuting a sentence.
Several testifiers said there is limited case law in the state to draw from in seeking to understand just how far lawmakers can go with legislation.
Danielle Conrad, executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the Legislature has already changed what could be construed as a lifetime ban on voting for ex-felons in the state constitution into a two-year moratorium.
Wayne pointed out that in the same session the governor vetoed his bill to restore voting rights to former felons, Ricketts signed into law a bill allowing felons to own bows, crossbows and knives -- what he called weapons potentially as deadly as firearms.
He told the committee he planned to make the proposal his priority bill and urged the committee to send LB83 to floor.
“We need our felons when they get out … to be productive citizens in their life and to be engaged in the processes of their community,” he said.