Wyoming lawmakers weigh giving nonviolent felons right to vote

2014-05-14T09:21:00Z 2014-05-14T21:36:14Z Wyoming lawmakers weigh giving nonviolent felons right to voteBy LAURA HANCOCK Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette

RAWLINS, Wyo. – The Wyoming Joint Judiciary Interim Committee wants to consider automatically restoring voting rights to nonviolent felons after their incarceration or probation ends.

The committee of state lawmakers ordered legislative staff Tuesday to draft a bill that would automatically restore voting rights, as part of a discussion about relieving the Wyoming Parole Board of the decade-old duty of restoring voting rights. The committee ordered a separate bill to relieve the Parole Board of restoring voting rights.

Both bills will be discussed before the 2015 legislative session.

Currently, the governor and Parole Board restore voting rights in Wyoming. The duty was given to the Parole Board in 2003.

Board member Doug Chamberlain said restoring voting rights is time-consuming. This year, the board has already had 300 parole board hearings. If the board denies voting rights to someone who thinks he has the right, an appeal can take time, Chamberlain said.

The Parole Board must restore voting rights to nonviolent felons if they apply five years after their sentence ends. The felons cannot have more than one felony conviction, unless they were convicted of more than one felony from the same incident. Voting rights have been restored to about 85 people, said Daniel Fetsco, executive director of the Parole Board Office.

Wyoming’s law prohibiting convicted felons from automatically voting isn’t perfect, said Peggy Nighswonger, the state’s elections director. There is no system in the United States to notify county clerks of convicted felons who have moved in from other states.

“Therefore, we do have individuals on our voter registration system who have been convicted of felons in other states,” she said.

Most states automatically restore voting rights to felons after their sentence is over, Nighswonger said.

Committee chairman Sen. John Schiffer, R-Kaycee, wanted two bills be drafted, one releasing the Parole Board from having to restore voting rights and the separate one allowing automatic restoration of rights. He said the automatic restoration of rights will be controversial at the Capitol, which is why the issue needed to be tackled separately.

Linda Burt, executive director of the Wyoming chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, would prefer both issues to be together on one bill.

“I’m concerned they could take the responsibility for the restoration from the Parole Board and if the second bill (of automatic restoration) doesn’t pass, we could be back to 2002,” she said, referring to when the governor was the only person who could restore rights.

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