By Jason Huffman, Dijon Stokes and Diego Echeverri
The freedom to vote in fair and free elections is absolutely essential to our republic.
Amid all the division and disagreement in politics today, such a simple statement is one all of us can agree to. The freedom to vote is one that countless Americans have fought and died for — a freedom generations of West Virginians have honored, and one we owe to the generations of West Virginians still to come.
But when our state’s voters head to the polls, that freedom doesn’t ring true for all of our neighbors. From Martinsburg to Huntington, thousands of West Virginians are denied a voice in our elections — even as they pay their taxes, work a job, and raise their families.
Under current rules, thousands of West Virginians with past convictions are barred from casting a ballot after being released from prison. Even after satisfying the requirements handed down by our state’s judicial system and returning to society for parole or probation, those West Virginians still can’t fully participate in it. Whether you’re conservative, liberal or somewhere in between, all who stand for the freedom to vote can see why that just isn’t right.
It’s clear something has to change — and fortunately, that change may already be on the way. Last Wednesday, a key senate committee passed a bill that would restore voting rights to West Virginians with past convictions. If just one more Senate committee approves, the bill — S.B. 488 — could be up for a vote on the Senate floor as soon as this week.
If that bill is signed into law, West Virginia would join 21 other states — including neighboring Ohio and Pennsylvania — in restoring voting eligibility to citizens with past convictions upon their release from prison. Among those citizens in West Virginia and across the nation are veterans who got caught up in the criminal justice system, they’re victims of the opioid crisis that’s ravaged this country, and they’re community leaders who’ve turned their lives around after paying their debt to society.
Ensuring those with past convictions can participate in our society in a meaningful way is a foundational part of the rehabilitative process — and a key part of that participation is the freedom to vote. Research shows that restoring voting eligibility to formerly incarcerated individuals can significantly reduce recidivism, with one study by the Florida Parole Commission even finding those individuals are three times less likely to commit new crimes after having their rights restored. With such clear benefits to both the formerly incarcerated and our society as a whole, it’s no surprise that more and more law enforcement organizations, including the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Probation and Parole Association support voting restoration.
Whether it’s a law enforcement agency or voters from across the political spectrum, the simple truth is restoring voting eligibility is more than just a powerful step for fair and free elections — it’s a popular one. West Virginia lawmakers have the chance to deliver on something that voters all across our state can get behind, and when such an opportunity would restore the freedom to vote for thousands of West Virginians, that’s a chance we can’t afford to miss.
— Huffman is West Virginia State Director for Americans for Prosperity. Dijon Stokes is Advocacy Specialist for the ACLU of West Virginia. Diego Echeverri is the Director of Advocacy for Secure Democracy USA.