Bill would allow jailed felons in New Hampshire to vote

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CONCORD, N.H. >> Convicted felons behind bars in New Hampshire could get the right to vote under a proposal that is heading for a full vote by the House.

If passed, the measure would put the state in the ranks of Vermont and Maine — the only two states where felons never lose their right to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But the bill, sponsored by four Democrats, faces an uphill battle after being deemed unworkable by the House Elections Law Committee on Thursday.

The Department of Corrections took no position on the bill, but spokesman Jeff Lyons raised concerns about the impact on nearly 100 New Hampshire inmates incarcerated out of state and whether it would burden corrections staff.

Currently, convicted felons in the Granite State are eligible to vote once released.

"I don't see any reason why people who are incarcerated should be deprived of their rights of citizenship," said Rep. Judith Spang, a Durham Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill.

But Elections Law Committee chair Kathleen Hoezel, a Hudson Republican, said the bill is likely to die in the house after her committee voted 15-3 that it is "inexpedient to legislate."

"If you're incarcerated as a felon, you're not allowed to vote," Hoezel said Friday. "The feeling was, 'Keep your nose clean so you can vote."'

She said there were also questions about how it would be implemented and a possible clash with the state's domicile voter registration law that allows voters to register wherever they can prove they're living on election day. "You don't want to pass something that is not a good bill — fully vetted — and there are still so many unanswered questions."

In Vermont and Maine, convicted felons are eligible to vote — and run for office — even while behind bars, according to databases compiled by NCSL, the Sentencing Project and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Wendy Underhill, program director for elections and redistricting at the NCSL, said most progress toward allowing convicts to vote relates to post-incarcerated felons rather than those still behind bars.

"There is a slow but steady trend toward re-enfranchising convicted felons that's been going on for about 20 years," Underhill said. She noted that Wyoming last year went to automatic restoration of voting privileges post-release.

Maryland lawmakers this month restored voting rights to thousands of released felons, overriding a veto by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan. The law that takes effect March 10 states that felons can vote even if they are still serving out sentences on parole of probation, contrary to past requirements that made them ineligible until their full sentences were completed.

Florida and Iowa remain the only two states where convicted felons are barred for life from voting.


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