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Delaware Senate Democrats

Constitutional amendment introduced to restore voting rights to disenfranchised Delawareans

June 16, 2023

DOVER – Sen. Kyle Evans Gay and Rep. Kerri Evelyn Harris introduced an amendment to the state Constitution on Thursday that would restore voting rights to all Delawareans who have completed a prison sentence on felony charges. The amendment also would remove outdated limitations on voting contained in the state’s founding document that have been ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Senate Bill 180 would continue the restorative justice work undertaken by the General Assembly in recent decades by adding Delaware to a list of 20 states – both blue and red – that automatically restore every person’s voting rights upon their release from prison.

“Felony disenfranchisement laws are antithetical to the principles of fairness, justice and equality,” said Sen. Gay, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “People who commit a crime deserve to be judged and sentenced accordingly. But how can we claim to believe in redemption and second chances while we permanently strip people of our republic’s most basic right? All returning citizens – no matter their crimes – should be able to participate in our democracy, and this bill will finally give them that chance.”

Championed in Senate by former Sen. Margaret Rose Henry in 2013, the Hazel D. Plant Voter Restoration Act amended the Delaware Constitution to allow most people convicted of a felony to cast a ballot following their release from prison, repealing what previously had been a five-year waiting period.

Three years later, Sen. Henry passed legislation that removed a requirement for those same Delawareans to pay off all of their fines and fees before their voting rights could be restored.

SB 180 would remove the final prohibition on the restoration of voting rights remaining in the Constitution, which continues to disenfranchise Delawareans after they have completed a prison sentence on a felony for which post-incarceration suffrage has yet to be restored.

“Justice ceases to exist without mercy, and a path to forgiveness and redemption,” said Sen. Henry, who retired from the Delaware General Assembly in 2018. “I am thrilled this generation of legislators is continuing the work we began a decade ago by recognizing that people who have paid their debt to society are a part of our society, and should have a voice in our democracy.”

Delaware is currently one of only 10 states in the nation that permanently disenfranchises people who have been convicted of specific crimes. Only Virginia disenfranchises all people convicted of a felony. 

In addition to restoring voting rights to all Delawareans following completion of their prison sentence, SB 180 would make a number of changes to the voting rights section of the Delaware Constitution to bring it into compliance with state and federal law.

Those changes would remove a literacy test requirement in the Constitution that is prohibited by federal law; add language prohibiting the restoration of voting rights from being contingent on monetary payment in keeping with Senate Bill 242, which was signed into law in 2016; set 18 as the minimum age at which a person can vote, in keeping with the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; and remove durational residency requirements ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972.

“If we truly believe that a prison sentence is the punishment that a person faces for committing a crime, then we should not be continuing to penalize people once they’ve completed that sentence,” said Rep. Kerri Evelyn Harris, SB 180’s lead House sponsor. “Restorative justice allows those who have made amends for their crimes by completing their sentences to participate in our democracy and allow them to fully reintegrate into society. By finishing the work of previous General Assemblies, we will be realizing that mission and by restoring people’s fundamental right to vote.”

SB 180 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee.