LOS ANGELES (AP) — California voters could decide whether to reinstate voting rights to people in prison on felony convictions under a newly proposed constitutional amendment.
It would be a major expansion of suffrage for incarcerated people if passed. California would join Maine and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia, as the only states where felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are in prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The California bill, introduced Monday by Assembly Member Isaac Bryan, proposes an amendment to the state constitution. Bryan’s proposal doesn’t include any exemptions based on the crime committed. After decades of disenfranchisement, he said it's time to open up voting for everyone.
"I think we’re having a deep discussion on what it means to have voting as a right for every citizen,” Bryan said Wednesday.
Two-thirds of each chamber of the state legislature must vote yes for the bill just for it to appear on the ballot as a proposition. Voters must then approve it by a simple majority for it to become a constitutional amendment.
California is currently among 21 states where felons only lose their right to vote while they are incarcerated, the conference says. The right is automatically reinstated upon release.
Some states’ laws require probation and parole to be completed for the restoration of voting rights. In other states, people incarcerated for certain crimes lose their rights indefinitely after release.
The California Constitution currently disqualifies people who are incarcerated in state or federal prison from voting and restores the right upon their release. The law previously required felons to complete their parole period before getting back their right to vote; Californians approved the change to get rid of that requirement in a 2020 constitutional amendment.
David Cruz, an organizer with the nonprofit Initiate Justice who was released in September after 13 years in state prison, said he wanted to have his voice heard while he was incarcerated.
“Despite what many people assume, people in prison care about the same political issues that we outside do,” he said Wednesday during a news conference supporting the legislation.
Bryan, a Los Angeles Democrat and the chair of the Assembly's Committee on Elections, faces a tough sell for the two-thirds vote. While the Legislature is controlled by Democrats, the party has conservative representatives from rural areas and major progressive policies aren't guaranteed to pass.
The committee's Republican vice chair, Assembly Member Tom Lackey, opposes the bill and said Wednesday it is a “betrayal” of crime victims.
“The perpetrator is automatically given a blanket of forgiveness," under this legislation, said Lackey, who represents part of Southern California. “Criminal conduct deserves a price to be paid.”
Bryan disagreed that giving offenders the right to vote is an affront to victims.
"The voice of victims matters in the criminal legal system, but what we’re talking about right now is democracy as a whole,” he said.
Associated Press Writer Adam Beam in Sacramento, California, contributed.