By Gershon Salzberg
CALIFORNIA, Feb. 6– In a big moment for people convicted of felonies, Assemblyman Issac Bryan introduced Bill AC-4, to the state legislature, proposing an amendment to the state constitution. This amendment would allow those with felony convictions to keep their right to vote while they are serving their prison sentence. “Overall democracy thrives when everyone is included, and that includes people who are currently incarcerated,” Bryan told The Guardian in February.
But some people are against the bill. Tom Lackey, a Republican state Assemblyman tweeted: “As Vice-Chair of [the California Legislature] Assembly Committee on Elections, I am opposed to [Bill] ACA4. Criminal acts should have consequences. Voting is a sacred privilege, not an absolute right of citizenship.”
Now, California law gives people convicted of felonies their right to vote back once they finish serving their sentence. But, if two-thirds of both houses vote yes on Bill AC-4, and the public does too, then they will keep their right to vote while incarcerated. If the bill becomes law, California will join Maine, Vermont, and the District of Columbia as the only places in the United States where people convicted of felonies never lose their right to vote by enshrining that right in their state constitutions.
But this may conflict with the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which says that people who have “participation in rebellion, or other crime…” do not have the right to vote. The United States Supreme Court interpreted this to mean that denying people convicted of felonies the right to vote does not violate the 14th Amendment, in the 1974 Richardson v.s. Ramirez case.
Recently, there has been a growing push to extend voting rights to incarcerated people. Most notably, Congress introduced the Freedom to Vote Act last year. It was not passed. But it would have enshrined the right of anyone convicted of a felony to vote in all federal elections, after they served their sentence.
Bernie Sanders, a Senator from Vermont, is a high-profile proponent of extending voting rights to incarcerated people. He has said multiple times, especially during the 2020 presidential debates, that no one deserves to lose the right to vote.
"I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes even for terrible people because once you start chipping away ... you're running down a slippery slope,” he said.
California leads many other blue states and sets trends in terms of laws, like they did with air pollution regulations. Four years after the federal government passed the Clean Air Act in 1963 to regulate air pollution, California created the California Air Resources Board (CARB) which set stricter rules. Many states, including New York, followed California’s example, electing to follow stricter air pollution regulations.
Many hope that Bill AC-4 will become law. But many do not. Will the Bill pass? And how many felons will get their voting rights back in the years to come?