|On Thursday, Counsel explained Senate Bill 235 to Senate Judiciary Subcommittee B, stating that in current law all felons are not allowed to vote until they have completed their sentence.
West Virginia case law has said parole, probation, and supervised release are all part of the sentence.
SB235 would allow felons to register to vote upon completion of their incarceration. Counsel said only two states — Kentucky and Virginia — permanently disenfranchise felons.
“The rest of the country is mixed. There’s been a movement towards restoring voting rights,” Counsel said.
Daniel Griffith, Senior Director of Policy for Secure Democracy USA, said his organization promotes access for eligible voters, and SB235 achieves their goals. He added data that says 21 states allow registering to vote upon completion of incarceration, including Ohio, Indiana, Utah, and New Hampshire.
Mr. Griffith said the end of incarceration period provides clarity.
“If they’re serving their sentence of incarceration, they’re ineligible. If they’re not, they’re eligible,” he said.
He added that it’s also more clear for election workers.
“If they’re in the Clerk’s office, they’re obviously not incarcerated,” Mr. Griffith said.
There are now 7,500 individuals in West Virginia who are under probation or parole and cannot register to vote, according to Mr. Griffith.
“Civic engagement has been found to reduce rates of recividism,” he said.
Senator Mike Stuart of Kanawha County asked about his organization’s funding and whether it is nonpartisan.
“What are the motivations for your organization? Are you really nonpartisan? Do you receive funding from George Soros?” Senator Stuart asked.
Mr. Griffith said he is not aware of funding from that source.
Senator Stuart went on to say there are compelling reasons not to let felons vote: They are disenfranchised because society deems felons to be untrustworthy. He cited a couple of currently incarcerated felons in West Virginia and asked Mr. Griffith whether those offenders should be allowed to vote.
“We are a voting rights organization,” Mr. Griffith said, stating that some people would see it as a reward for good behavior and a right when those citizens are employed and paying taxes. He clarified that his organization does not endorse the right of convicted felons to vote while incarcerated.
Kenneth Matthews, a member of Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), spoke to the Committee as a former incarcerated person. He said the country was founded on “no taxation without representation” and that he has been doing well since he was released in 2020.
He said he had spoken to Judiciary committees, but he couldn’t vote because he was on parole.
“We are doing everything possible but are held back by the one thing to make us whole,” he added.
Referring to Senator Stuart’s use of the phrase “balance of equities” regarding what is fair and what is not, Mr. Matthews noted inequity in the current law, saying, “Doing well doesn’t matter. I’m part of the fringe of society.”
Chairman Michael Azinger of Wood County asked Mr. Matthews about the length of time for probation and the distinction between parole and probation. Mr. Matthews said probation is determined by a judge, and if a sentence was 15 years, probation also could be as long as 15 years. He said probation could also be as long as 15 years. Parole is administered by the Parole Board, and a person can be on both parole and probation at the same time or on probation after parole.
“I put in the time. I put in the effort,” Mr. Matthews said, noting he is working, volunteering, and paying taxes.
Senator Mike Caputo of Marion County said, “Thank you for your courage to come here. I’m a firm believer in second chances. I hope we do get this bill.”
Because of time constraints, Senator Mark Maynard of Wayne County moved to lay over the bill for further discussion at the next meeting.