February 26, 2017
People with non-violent felonies on their records came a step closer to automatically having their voting rights restored in Wyoming on Friday, but the real test will come Monday.
That’s the deadline for all House bills to clear Committee of the Whole in the Senate, or die on the vine. House Bill 75 successfully made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee on the last day it could by a 3 – 2 vote. The bill, sponsored by Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), has been introduced in previous sessions but never made it all the way to the governor’s desk.
Although the bill seems to have a chance to pass this session, the opposition it faced in committee from Sens. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) and Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan) indicate there are some lawmakers who would rather keep things the way they are.
Hicks and Kinskey attempt to muddle and stall
Currently non-violent felons in Wyoming can have their voting rights restored, but they have to apply and wait for five years. Byrd’s bill would eliminate the waiting period and require the state in most cases to issue a certificate for restoration of voting rights if the non-violent felon was released from prison after Jan. 1, 2010.
Eligible inmates released before that date would need to submit a written request to obtain the certificate. So would anyone who committed a federal non-violent felony or one in another state who moved to Wyoming. The Department of Corrections would notify the secretary of state about all certificates issued, as well as the clerk of district court where the crime was committed. Anyone deemed ineligible to automatically have their voting rights restored could appeal to the courts.
Byrd told the committee his bill would end the waiting period. “What we discovered talking to the various departments is that they wanted to streamline the process,” he said. “Talking to [non-violent felons] we learned we’re losing a lot of worthy individuals we would like to recapture and be part of this [voting] process.”
Hicks said county clerks should also be notified when a released felon receives a certificate. Byrd said all of the county clerks in Wyoming work off the secretary of state’s master list, so there is no need to notify them individually.
Hicks, who seemed to be trying to delay the bill by asking obvious questions he knew the answer to if he had read the four-page document, said he believes it should be incumbent upon the released felon to notify the county clerk when he moves to another voting district or county. “That’s what the rest of us have to do,” he said. “The secretary of state’s office shouldn’t be burdened by having to do additional work.”
Byrd responded that under his bill the process of restoring voting rights would be seamless at the state level, instead of making eligible individuals “jump through a series of additional hoops.”
Sen. Dave Kinskey (R-Sheridan), sitting in for Chairman Sen. Leland Christensen (R-Alta), said he has been a member of the Judiciary Committee for three years and he has never understood similar bills because they did not include a flow cart. “Is the burden on the ex-felon onerous?” he asked. “Is that why you’re bringing the bill? Or is it the principle that once they’ve done the time for the crime, it should be automatic?”
Byrd said he sponsored the bill because a constituent walked him through all of the steps needed to restore his voting rights. “I found it burdensome, I found it cumbersome, I found it time-consuming, I found it frustrating,” he said.
“We have too many felons, and too many people in prison in Wyoming.”
HB-75 has the support of the Wyoming League of Women Voters, the Equality State Policy Center and the Wyoming Department of Corrections.
Rep. Tyler Lindholm (R-Sundance) related that his younger brother is a felon. “When he was 18 years old he got caught with a bunch of pot. He was an idiot and it was a felony. He can’t even vote for his own brother,” he said.
“We’re not restoring the right to hold office or be a juror,” Lindholm noted. “We’re restoring the automatic right for someone to once again be a responsible member of society. We’re saying, ‘Welcome back.’“
Kinskey said if someone doesn’t vote in a general election, he or she is taken off the voting rolls by the county clerk and they have to re-register. Lindholm said the same would be true of someone whose voting rights were restored by HB-75. A person whose voting rights were restored would also have to initially register, either in advance or at the polls, so they receive no special treatment.
Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the proposal conveys to people who have served their time, “This is a big step; we’re proud of you, now you can vote.” He said county clerks have told him county prosecutors have sometimes tried to keep released felons from voting.
“Sometimes it’s a mistake, sometime it’s deliberate, but it happens,” Case said. He added that he thinks there are too many felonies on the books in Wyoming, particularly without marijuana reform. “We have too many felons, and too many people in prison in Wyoming. The rate is one of the highest in the United States, and in the world.”
“This is going to be a very good thing,” Case said of the bill. “It’s not going to hurt anyone, and it’s going to help some people. What could be better than helping someone be a [productive] citizen?”
Steve Lindley, deputy diector of the Department of Corrections, said most non-violent, first-time felons are sentenced to probation, not prison. He explained that of the 37 felons who had successfully met the five-year waiting period in the last year, 11 were found to be ineligible to have their voting rights restored, often because they committed another felony. Eleven others had moved and could not be contacted. He said his department favors a “broader, less onerous process.”
The final stretch is anything but certain
In a final attempt to kill the bill, Kinskey, knowing that it would die if it wasn’t approved by the committee’s immediate deadline, asked the members if they wanted to wait until Monday to vote. But the vote was held, with Kinskey and Hicks voting “no” and Sens. Tara Nethercott (R-Cheyenne) and Liisa Anselmi-Dalton (D-Rock Springs) voting in favor of the bill. Christensen, the absent chairman, broke the tie with the “yes” vote he’d left with the committee’s secretary.
Now Byrd and the other sponsors have to wait and see if the Senate decides to even consider the bill before the cut-off deadline Monday. If it does, HB-75 would also have to withstand an expected pummeling on the Senate floor by Hicks and Kinskey.