Senate approves bill expanding felon voting rights

 

DOVER — The Senate passed Tuesday, by a surprising margin, a bill that would allow felons to vote without having to first pay fines related to their offense.

By a 16-4 tally, with one absent, senators sent the proposal on to the House of Representatives.

In the January State of the State, Gov. Jack Markell, a Democrat, called for separating the “ability to participate in democracy” from the “ability to pay.”

Currently, most felons can vote as soon as they meet “all financial obligations and restitution required by the sentence,” according to the Delaware Code.

Although nine of the 12 members of the Senate Democratic caucus were signed on as sponsors of the bill, passage initially appeared as though it would be tight. However, after 20 minutes of debate that included the rejection of an amendment that would keep some restrictions on felons, the chamber approved the legislation, with all 12 Democrats and four Republicans voting in favor.

In 2013, the General Assembly passed a bill eliminating a five-year waiting period before felons could vote, but financial obligations continued.

If the bill passed Tuesday is approved by the House and signed by Gov. Markell, who is supportive, fines would not end but generally would no longer prohibit someone from voting.

Individuals who do not attempt to pay back those fines, as well as those who have committed murder or sexual offenses, would remain barred from participating.

Tuesday, main sponsor Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, called the proposal “the right thing to do.”

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry

Sen. Margaret Rose Henry

“Everyone of us who lives in Delaware, we live in a free society, and 90 percent of the people who are in prison are going to come out, and in order for them to be productive and be able to do a good job they need to be able to vote because that makes you feel that you’re part of the society in which you live,” she said.

Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, objected, arguing the legislation would take power away from judges and teach people there are few consequences for their actions.

“What good are fines, restitution orders, what good are court orders if this body’s going to negate all them?” he asked.

Sen. Henry responded that fees are not being eliminated entirely but would no longer stand as an obstacle to someone taking part in an election.

Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, introduced an amendment that would mandate felons pay the restitution and victim compensation fund assessments set by the court in their entirety.

“I don’t feel comfortable giving folks back voting privileges until their victims have been compensated as much as the law allows,” he said.

The amendment was defeated, 11-8, with one not voting and one absent.

He blasted the outcome afterward, saying in a statement that lawmakers who voted in favor “put felons before victims, plain and simple.”

In contrast, the vote was applauded by the left-leaning advocacy group Common Cause Delaware.

“This legislation affirms the state’s commitment to provide a second chance to those who’ve served their time in prison after breaking our laws,” lobbyist Claire Snyder-Hall said in a statement. “We can’t reasonably expect formerly incarcerated people to become productive citizens unless we’re willing to extend to them all the rights that go with citizenship, including the right to vote.”

The measure has 18 House co-sponsors, meaning it needs just three more supporters to pass the second chamber.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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