Dozens of supporters gathered on Jan. 20 at the State Capitol to call for voting rights restoration in Nebraska – a reform that builds broader civic engagement, curbs recidivism, and is overdue in our state.
State Sens. Justin Wayne and Machaela Cavanaugh have introduced LB20 and LR4CA, respectively, to the Nebraska Legislature. LB20 would immediately restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, including probation and parole. LR4CA is a proposed constitutional amendment to remove felony convictions other than treason from being a disqualification for voting.
Nebraska is among a small handful of states to withhold voting rights well beyond the completion of felony sentences. Once a Nebraskan has completed their sentence, they must then wait an additional two years before their right to vote is restored.
Punishing people by restricting their right to vote for years beyond their sentence is archaic, excessive, and unjustified, said Jasmine Harris, policy and advocacy director for RISE. The organization assists Nebraska’s returning citizens with re-entry to society.
“When people are connected to their community and feel they are accepted, they are less likely to re-offend,” Harris said. “So what can we do? (LB20 and LR4CA) can impact this problem, which has been lingering since 2005.”
That was the year that lawmakers established the extra two-year waiting period to vote. At the time, the extra time requirement was a political compromise as part of a criminal justice bill.
On Friday, more than three dozen members of Nebraska’s Voting Rights Restoration Coalition – a group of nearly 30 groups and organizations around the state that support the common-sense reform – stood in solidarity behind a series of speakers, which included Harris, Wayne, and Cavanaugh.
Speakers also included Demetrius Gatson, a court-watching supervisor at ACLU of Nebraska; Shakur Abdullah, advocacy lead for the Community Justice Center and founder of JustUs15Vote; and Nicole Porter, the senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, national advocates for effective and humane responses to crime to minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults.
Wayne, who is in his second term at the statehouse, said 2023 is the seventh consecutive year that he has introduced legislation to do away with the state’s arbitrary two-year wait to vote. The Legislature approved a similar bill in 2017, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The Omaha senator said he is confident that LB20 has momentum at the Capitol, starting with advancement from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee to the floor of the Legislature and, eventually, to the desk of Gov. Jim Pillen. The bill enjoys bipartisan support, he said: In addition to providing former felons new civic life upon completion of their sentences, it can reduce costs related to Nebraska’s corrections system.
“Year No. 7 is going to be the year we’re going to get it done,” Wayne said.
In discussing LR4CA, Cavanaugh emphasized the close relationship between voting and continued civic engagement and political involvement, even among those who may be incarcerated.
“Who should be more involved than those who, for the policies that are being created, are being impacted the most?,” she asked. “If you are incarcerated, it is because of policies that are being made at the electoral level. You should have a voice in that.”
Gatson said the legislation would benefit about 20,000 Nebraskans who have paid their debt to society, who have re-integrated into their communities, and who pay taxes and play by the rules. Since completing a felony sentence in 2018, Gatson has completed college, bought a home, and started a business – but could not vote.
“Allowing all citizens to engage in (their) civic responsibilities helps them to feel vested in their community,” Gatson said. “It fosters a restorative approach based on principles of respect, responsibility, repair, reintegration, and relationships.”
Wayne suggested that he would push for a Government Committee hearing on LB20 with hopes of moving it to the floor of the Legislature as soon as possible. He pledged to work with senators across the political spectrum to make the proposed reforms a reality.
Harris said: “The Voting Rights Restoration Coalition .. wants everyone to be able to access opportunities to participate civically in Nebraska. We know the most fundamental of these is accessing the right to vote. We believe Nebraskans and our elected officials are ready to restore the right to vote.”