Nationally, 4.6 million Americans are locked out of the democratic process because of laws targeting people with felony convictions.
Last week, thousands of people with felony convictions regained the right to vote in New Mexico, the latest in a growing number of states seeking to reintegrate residents into society by allowing them to participate in elections upon leaving prison.
New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a wide-reaching voting rights package into law late last month. The measure also includes broader mail-in ballot access for Native Americans, expands same-day voter registration and adds new voting rights for people with felony convictions.
New Mexico’s new law ends the practice of canceling a person’s voter registration upon their felony conviction, scraps a requirement that people finish probation or parole before being allowed to vote and gives exiting inmates the opportunity to register to vote upon leaving prison.
New Mexico now has a streamlined system, free of bureaucratic hurdles, to ensure that once someone leaves incarceration, they can exercise their voting rights, said Democratic state Sen. Katy Duhigg, who supported the legislation. Every Republican voted against the bill, with many arguing that it would compromise the integrity of elections.
“The more someone has a say in their community, the more invested they are in the community, the more likely they’re going to be a productive member of that community,” Duhigg told Stateline after the bill-signing ceremony in Santa Fe. “Re-enfranchising folks who are leaving incarceration is a really important and effective way to reduce recidivism.”
Duhigg also pointed to the racist roots of the policy to disenfranchise people with felony convictions, which originally targeted newly emancipated Black people in the late 1800s.
New Mexico, along with Minnesota, are the most recent states to follow 21 others in allowing people previously convicted of felonies to vote upon leaving prison. Most of those states have done so in the past two decades.
By denying the vote to people with felony convictions and adding waiting periods or requiring that all fines be paid, states are denying people their rights as citizens, said Reggie Thedford, deputy political director for Stand Up America, a grassroots organization fighting for these bills.
“Citizenship is not stripped away at the prison gates, and neither should the right to vote,” he said.
Lawmakers in 10 additional states are currently debating measures that would allow people leaving prison to vote, according to a count by the Voting Rights Lab. Bills in Mississippi, Virginia and West Virginia failed this session.
Lawmakers in California, Illinois, Oregon and five other states are considering legislation that would give full voting rights to people with felony convictions, even allowing them to vote in prison.