On May 22, 2019, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill, AB 431, which would automatically restore the right to vote following a past felony conviction, helping an estimated 77,000 citizens. Campaign Legal Center (CLC) sent a letter to Governor Steve Sisolak urging him to sign this bill as soon as possible because voting is a fundamental right regardless of a previous conviction.
Current Nevada law is one of the most difficult to navigate in the country. This is due to an extremely complicated law, unnecessary administrative hurdles, and a lack of official guidance.
In Nevada, the law regarding which people with past criminal convictions can and cannot vote has been confusing. Whether a person can vote depends on how many felony convictions they have, the category of the conviction(s), in what year they completed their sentence, and whether their convictions were in Nevada state court, federal court, or out of state. For some, their voting rights are restored once they complete their sentence, but most people who fall into that category likely do not know that they can vote again. Those who do not qualify for automatic restoration will need to petition a court to restore their voting rights, however, this process is extremely underused and no official guidance exists. Even with a lawyer, regaining your right to vote is extremely difficult, and no one should need a lawyer to help them vote.
With no leadership from the state to help eligible voters navigate this maze, a void was created – and CLC realized that direct assistance to individuals with past convictions was necessary.
In August 2018, CLC launched Restore Your Vote, a national program which has aimed to assist thousands of citizens who have lost their vote due to a past felony conviction. Since then, Restore Your Vote has provided direct help to almost 4,000 Americans, including nearly 875 people throughout Nevada.
Through Restore Your Vote organizers based in Las Vegas and Reno, CLC found that many eligible voters with past convictions wrongly thought that they could not vote. In fact, many people with convictions’ voting rights are automatically restored, but the law is so inscrutable that those folks would not know that they can vote again.
Over time, the many administrative obstacles that voters faced also began to surface. For example, we discovered that many county registrars were requiring additional documentation as proof of the restoration of their rights in order to register to vote. This additional and unnecessary barrier creates an undue burden on voting, especially affecting low-income individuals. Moreover, requiring additional documentation from individuals whose rights have been restored likely violates federal law.
Current state law requires some individuals with a past conviction to petition the court to restore their right to vote. But this process has hardly been used – only 281 people have used the court petition process to restore their rights from 1990-2011. There are no forms or guidance that would allow an individual who cannot afford a lawyer to file such a petition on their own.
Nevada’s current felony disenfranchisement law is a mess and many of its components are likely in violation of federal law. If signed, AB 431 would eliminate these complicated rules with a simple change: if you are in prison for a felony you cannot vote; if you are not, you can vote. If signed, Nevada will be a part of a growing movement reaffirming the right to vote. The right to vote is the cornerstone of American democracy and should not be infringed, regardless of a past conviction.
This post was written by Aaron Carrell, a 2019 CLC Hinckley intern, and student at the University of Utah.