Wyoming lawmakers are thinking about creating an automatic process to allow some felons to regain their voting rights after they serve their time.
The bill would set up a process to restore voting rights for nonviolent, first-time offenders once they finish serving their sentences, including any probation or parole. Currently, offenders must apply to the state parole board for restoration of voting rights.
The Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee is set to consider the issue next week in Newcastle.
Bob Lampert, director of the Wyoming Department of Corrections, is set to testify before the committee next week. He said Wednesday that he'll be prepared to answer questions without taking a position on what lawmakers should do.
"The data suggest that people who have their rights restored and engage in the voting process are significantly less likely to come back to prison than those who fail to engage in the voting process," Lampert said. "So there is some data that suggest that it makes a difference."
Lampert said felons who are allowed to vote again are more engaged in their community in a positive way.
He also noted that the Wyoming Legislature has rejected voting rights restoration legislation in the past.
"I think it's just the thought of felons voting that causes some concern," Lampert said of past legislative opposition. "There's one train of thought that says the majority party isn't interested in restoring the rights because they believe that those who would be reinstated would most likely vote a different party line, but that's kind of conjecture."
Jen Horvath, of the Wyoming ACLU, and Dan Neal, director of the Equality State Policy Center, both said their groups support the bill to restore voting rights.
"The restoration of voting rights is consistent with rehabilitation and reductions in recidivism," Horvath said Wednesday. "Because people are more fully able to participate in our democratic society, they are more complete citizens. They're more vested in our political process."
Horvath said that from 2000 to 2011, just over 4,200 nonviolent offenders in Wyoming would have been eligible to have their voting rights restored under the bill.
Neal said his group believes that people who have paid their debt to society should be afforded full citizenship rights.
Neal said it's important to get people who have served time in prison re-engaged with society once they're released. "Letting them become participating members of the community seems like a step forward," he said.
Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Under current Wyoming law, the only ways felons can regain their voting rights are through a pardon from the governor or the restoration of their rights by the parole board, Gingery said.
Gingery said that although the Legislature gave the parole board discretion about restoring voting rights to felons, the Legislature didn't spell out the criteria the board is to consider in weighing such applications. He said some board members have complained about their predicament.
"I totally get what the parole board was saying," Gingery said. "I think we've put them in an odd spot. We didn't think that one through very well, to give them discretion but then not tell them how to use that discretion, what standards to use.
"I do think that if we're going to give voting rights back to felons, it needs to be that either nobody gets them or everybody gets them back as soon as you've finished your parole."