A provision in the 837-page special session bill implementing the state budget would allow people on parole to vote, completing a decade-long effort to end felony disenfranchisement in Connecticut.
Lawmakers attempted to restore access to the ballot box for people on parole during the regular legislative session that ended last week, but the omnibus bill failed to come up for a vote in the House. Instead, the bill — a wide-ranging proposal intended to broaden the state’s voting rules, allowing different state agencies to automatically enroll new voters and giving people time off work to vote — made it into the budget implementer being debated in the House Tuesday night.
Connecticut’s laws on the intersection of voter eligibility and the criminal justice system are complicated. U.S. citizens whose crimes have not yet been adjudicated but who remain behind bars pretrial or who are serving misdemeanor sentences can vote, as can those on probation. But those serving sentences for felony convictions, or who are on parole, cannot.
Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated people to vote. New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island allow people on parole to cast a ballot, which means Connecticut has the most stringent felony disenfranchisement laws in the northeast.
Proponents of ending felony disenfranchisement contend that it is a racial justice issue. Everyone who is on parole has spent time in prison. About 44% of people in prison or jail as of June 1 were Black, whereas only about 10% of state residents are Black.
“The people that are most impacted by being stripped of their right to vote are Black and brown folks because of our criminal legal system and the way it’s set up,” said David McGuire, executive director of the ACLU of Connecticut. “Black and brown people are disproportionately represented on parole. It’s absolutely nonsensical that you have different access to a fundamental right depending on whether you’re on parole or probation.”
The current law on who is disenfranchised is confusing, said Michael Lawlor, former undersecretary for criminal justice policy and planning under former Gov. Dannel Malloy and now a professor at the University of New Haven. “There are all these different statutes, and I think people mistake ‘parole’ for all forms of supervised release, which is definitely not the case.”
According to Lawlor, the current felony disenfranchisement statute only bars people from voting who are incarcerated for a felony or on parole, not other forms of paroled supervision, like special parole, transitional supervision.
There were 3,997 people being supervised by Department of Correction parole officers as of May 1. But just 961 were on parole, and of that number, only 779 were on a Connecticut parole, as opposed to being supervised in Connecticut on behalf of another state.
"This is not a huge windfall for any particular point of view," Lawlor said. "But symbolically it's a very important thing. It's not unlike the prison gerrymandering issue. It's not a huge difference in any district, but it's further acknowledgement that these are human beings ... it's part of an evolution, I think, in the way people think about justice-involved people."
That confusion over eligibility was part of the reason why the Secretary of State's Office supported the bill during the legislative session. Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for the office, said that uncertainty over who was and who wasn't eligible potentially made people hesitant to vote, choosing to instead err on the side of caution and not cast a ballot.
“As people return to their community from incarceration, the earlier they vote, the more likely they are to continue to vote and be more connected civically to their communities, and that’s a public good," Rosenberg said, noting that the proposed language makes it simple: if you are incarcerated for a felony, you cannot vote, but if you are not locked up for a felony, you can cast a ballot.
If the House and Senate pass the budget implementer this week, ending felony disenfranchisement will build on an already criminal justice-heavy legislative session.
"People have been trying to do this for quite some time," Lawlor said, estimating legislators have been trying to restore the vote to those on parole for at least the past decade.
“These concepts have been a perennial bit of legislation that we’ve talked about in this building,” Sen. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, said during the debate in the Senate on May 25 before senators approved Senate Bill 5 25-10.
Sampson said those who were on parole had not yet fulfilled their debt to society, and that "there is a difference between someone who has completed their obligation, and someone who has not.”
Sampson unsuccessfully introduced an amendment that would have struck the section of the bill dealing with ending felony disenfranchisement. Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield and ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, supported it. He said the bill extended a right to “someone who perpetrated a crime and was found guilty of that crime,” potentially before the victim is made whole.
“An individual should successfully complete all the requirements imposed upon them when they are judged guilty of any serious crime,” Kissel said.
Sen. Mae Flexer, D-Killingly and chair of the Government Administration & Elections Committee, noted that people on probation — which a judge can impose as part of a sentence, just like they might for special parole — are eligible to vote, while those on parole are not.
The bill cleans that up, she said, stating clearly that once you are no longer incarcerated, you can cast a ballot.
“Right now that line is very fuzzy in Connecticut,” said Flexer. “I believe this is an important measure. People who have finished their period of incarceration should be fully welcomed back into our society, and a big part of that is being able to exercise your franchise as a voter.”
Rosenberg suggested there are other parts of the voter access proposal in the budget implementer that would help people who have spent time in prison, even if the language isn't ostensibly about the criminal legal system. The portion of the bill that deals with automatic voter registration for people getting a driver's license will help those coming home, Rosenberg said, since one of the first things people do when they get out of prison is get a license.
“Automatic voter registration makes it incredibly easy to register them to vote," said Rosenberg.