Wyoming lawmakers are going to study between now and the next legislative session the Wyoming Parole Board’s duties to restore convicted felons’ voting rights.
On Wednesday, the Management Council, a committee of Wyoming House and Senate leadership, asked the Judiciary Interim Committee to study the issue. That followed an April 3 letter from the Parole Board sent to Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, asking for an interim study.
Parole Board member Douglas Chamberlain, a former House speaker and Torrington resident, doesn’t think restoring voting rights to felons has anything to do with the board’s duties.
“I suggested we have that issue revisited by the Legislature if they would because I think it’s a contradiction within the law,” he said.
Chamberlain declined to say whether he supported or opposed voting rights for convicted felons.
“That’s not even the issue, whether I’m for it or against it," he said. "It’s what the procedure is for them to have it restored.”
In Wyoming, felons can regain their voting rights from the parole board five years after the sentence or probation period ends. They cannot have been convicted for a violent crime. They cannot have more than one felony conviction, unless they were convicted of more than one felony in the same crime incident, said Daniel Fetsco, executive director of the Parole Board Office.
Eighty-two people have asked and had their voting rights restored since a 2003 law that let the parole board restore them, Fetsco said. The only other way for Wyoming felons to regain voting rights is to appeal to the governor.
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne, estimates he has sponsored different versions of a bill that would restore voting rights to felons seven times in the past decade. In 2013, his bill passed the House and failed by one vote in the Senate, he said.
Wyoming has some of the most stringent voting restrictions for convicted felons, Zwonitzer said, noting that Vermont and Maine even let felons vote in prison.
Zwonitzer hopes the result of the interim study will be a bill that automatically restores voting rights to felons.
“I’m excited about this,” he said. “I’ve only been bringing the bill for a decade now.”
Fetsco, the executive director of the Parole Board Office, is also an attorney. He read a 2004 article in a publication called Perspectives on Politics that said laws to prevent felons from voting originated with Jim Crow laws in the South.
“These guys’ theory is that these laws came about during the Civil War era where the whole intent was to disenfranchise black people, keep them from voting, basically,” said Fetsco. “It has perpetuated to the point now in a lot of places to keep poor people from voting. A lot of poor, uneducated people from lower means who would likely vote Democrat.”
Dan Neil, executive director of the Casper-based Equality State Policy Center, which describes itself as a progressive research, public education and advocacy group, believes convicted felons should be able to vote.
“When people pay their debt to society, one way to get them functioning as full members of the community is to get them involved in civic affairs,” he said. “And that means enabling them to vote.”