Senator Klobuchar Introduces Bill To End Embargo of Cuba

Senator Amy Klobuchar
Senator Amy Klobuchar

On February 12, 2015, Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced S.491: Freedom to Export to Cuba Act. Its five cosponsors are Senators Richard Durbin (Dem., IL). Mike Enzi (Rep., WY),  Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Debbie Stabenow (Dem, MI). The bill was referred to the Senate’s   (a) Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs and (b) Foreign Relations Committees.

                        Comments on S.491

Senator Klobuchar’s press release said the bill would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and thereby pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government. [1]

This press release also stated, “It’s time to the turn the page on our Cuba policy. Fifty years of the embargo have not secured our interests in Cuba and have disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores. There are many issues in our relationship with Cuba that must be addressed, but this legislation to lift the embargo will begin to open up new opportunities for American companies, boost job creation and exports, and help improve the quality of life for the Cuban people.” [2]

She subsequently told a Minnesota newspaper, “There’s been a sea change in terms of how people are thinking about Cuba. I think it’s really important to get people from the Midwest involved. Our interests are different than some of the other people traditionally involved in this issue. … We come at it from a production perspective, from the perspective of wanting to sell things there.” [3]

Klobuchar’s bill was endorsed by the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba. Its Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk of Cargill Incorporated, said, “We appreciate Sen. Klobuchar’s leadership to advance this bipartisan bill, modernize U.S. policy toward Cuba and boost opportunities for American agriculture. Ending the embargo will enable our agriculture sector to work in partnership with Cuba and the Cuban people, develop a meaningful trading relationship and create jobs across many sectors of our own economy.”

Internal Senate Political Concerns

As previously mentioned S.491 was referred to two committees: the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee and the Foreign Relations Committee, each of which presents problems for successful passage of the bill. [4]

The Banking Committee has 12 Republican and 10 Democratic members. Its Chair is Richard Shelby (Rep., AL) while its Ranking Member is Sherrod Brown (Dem., OH). With two and maybe three exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority will be opposed to the bill while the Democrats will support the bill. The two exceptions are Republican Jerry Moran (KS), who supports ending the embargo, and Democrat Robert Menendez (NJ), who opposes such action. The other possible exception is Republican Bob Corker (TN), who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and who issued a noncommittal statement about the December 17th rapprochement.[5]

The Foreign Relations Committee has 10 Republican and nine Democratic members. Its Chair is the previously mentioned Bob Corker (Rep., TN) and its Ranking Member is Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ). With three and maybe four exceptions, my initial impression is that the Republican majority, including Marco Rubio (FL), a Cuban-American who strongly and repeatedly opposes reconciliation, will oppose the bill while the Democratic minority will support the measure. The exceptions are Republicans Jeff Flake (AZ) and Rand Paul (KY), who have supported ending the embargo, and Democrat Menendez, a Cuban-American who vehemently opposes reconciliation with Cuba, including ending the embargo. The possible exception is Chair Corker, who has issued a noncommittal statement on the rapprochement. Thus, it is conceivable that there could be a 10-9  (or even a 11-8) vote approving the bill in committee. But if it does not also get out of the Banking Committee, that probably means very little.

These internal Senate political considerations prompted Klobuchar to acknowledge to the Minnesota newspaper that the Foreign Relations Committee’s obstacles for the bill “are clearly something to be reckoned with … but it doesn’t mean that two people [Senators Rubio and Menendez] can stop the whole thing.” She added that the legislation could come up through the Banking. Housing and Urban Affairs Committee or be passed in piecemeal fashion through other bills.

Minnesota Representative Collin Peterson, who is a cosponsor of a companion bill (H.R.403) in the House of Representatives, also talked to the Minnesota newspaper about the political difficulties of passing such measures. Indeed, he called the odds of lifting the embargo this year as “thin” due to the political sway of the older generation of Cuban-Americans in certain congressional districts.

Peterson thought the elimination of the embargo will “help [Minnesota farmers] a little bit” by increasing demand and, therefore, farm prices, “but it’s marginal in the whole scheme of things.”

Conclusion

I thank and congratulate Senator Klobuchar for introducing this important bill and the six other senators for cosponsoring the bill. 

I conclude by adding the following three reasons for ending the embargo that I have not seen elsewhere:

1. Without the embargo, the U.S. would not face the annual fall nearly unanimous condemnation of the embargo by the U.N. General Assembly.

2. The elimination of the embargo might assist the U.S. in combatting the increasing Chinese and Russian influence in Latin America.

3. Cuba repeatedly has claimed that the embargo has caused damage to its economy, and at last Fall’s U.N. General Assembly meeting Cuba asserted the total damages were $1.1 trillion. That obviously is a very large amount of money. I am confident that in any litigation or arbitration over such a claim the U.S. would mount a thorough critique and arguments to rebut the claim, including evidence and argument that any alleged damages were caused by Cuban ineptitude and that the major premise of the argument (the illegality of the embargo under international law) was unfounded. Nevertheless, as is true in any disputed claim like this, there can be no 100% guarantee that the claim will be rejected in its entirety. Thus, this damage claim must be recognized as a contingent liability of the U.S., and ending the embargo will minimize the amount of that liability.

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[1] On January 15th the Congressional Research Service issued CRS Report 4388: “Cuba Sanctions: Legislative Restrictions Limiting the Normalization of Relations” In a 15-page table it “lists the various provisions of laws comprising economic sanctions on Cuba, including key laws that are the statutory basis of the embargo, and provides —on the authority to lift or waive these restrictions.”

[2] Similar press releases were issued by Senators Durbin and Leahy.

[3]  Sherry, Sen. Klobuchar leads effort in U.S. Senate to life Cuba trade embargo, StarTribune (Feb. 13, 2015).

[4] The THOMAS legislative service of the Library of Congress late on February 12th said the bill was referred to both of these committees, but on February 13th it said it was only referred to the Banking Committee. Since the embargo clearly relates to foreign relations, I assume the latter THOMAS version is incorrect.

[5] Research-backed comments and corrections on the positions regarding Cuba by the members of these committees are solicited and welcome.

United States Government’s Reactions to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

After looking at international and Cuban reactions to the December 17th announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, we now examine the reactions by the U.S. Government’s Executive Branch and Congress. A subsequent post will look at the reactions of the American people.

I. Executive Branch.

Led by President Barack Obama, the Executive Branch engaged in 18 months of secret negotiations with Cuba that resulted in the December 17th announcement of an accord between the two countries involving immediate release of certain prisoners, promised liberalization of U.S. regulations regarding U.S. exports to the island and U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, promised U.S. review of its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and further negotiations for reestablishment of normal diplomatic relations and for resolution of a long list of issues or disputes.

The U.S. Department of State immediately commenced review of the “terrorism’ designation and the Treasury and Commerce Departments in January announced the new and more liberal regulations regarding exports and travel.

The U.S., represented by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, participated in the first round of further negotiations with Cuba in Havana in January, and the second round will be this month in Washington, D.C.

In addition, as we will see in the discussion of reactions in the U.S. House of Representatives, bills have been introduced to end the U.S. embargo of the island.

In short, the U.S. is doing everything it can to further the progress toward normalization of relations and reconciliation of the two countries.

II. U.S. Congress

The following analysis of the positions of senators and representatives on reconciliation obviously is incomplete since I was not able to conduct exhaustive research on all 100 senators and all 435 representatives. I also used my judgment to assign pending bills as favoring or opposing reconciliation and assumed, absent specific information to the contrary, that being a sponsor or cosponsor of a bill in one category would preclude that individual’s voting for some or all of the bills in the other category. Moreover, the named individual legislators may change their minds if and when any of these measures reach the chambers’ floors for votes. I earnestly entreat readers to provide comments with other information to correct or supplement this analysis.

A. U.S. Senate

Of the 100 Senators, 25 so far appear to support reconciliation while 27 do not. The other 48 Senators apparently have not yet taken positions on this major issue.

1. Favoring reconciliation

As of February 10, I was surprised to discover that the Senate does not have a bill to abolish the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar clearly has stated her intent to offer and support such a bill, but has not done so to date because she believes that the Senate first should vote on confirmation of an ambassador to Cuba, who has not yet been nominated by the President. Moreover, Cuba’s President Castro has made noises that abolishing the embargo should come before restoration of normal diplomatic relations. As a result, Klobuchar’s legislative strategy may have to be revised.

In any event, as of February 10, the Senate had only two measures on its agenda that are at least tangentially favorable to the recent U.S.-Cuba accord.

The first is S.299 (Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015) offered by Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) with 13 cosponsors [1]  It was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee.

The other is a proposed resolution (S.RES.26: Commending Pope Francis for his leadership in helping to secure the release of Alan Gross and for working with the Governments of the United States and Cuba to achieve a more positive relationship). It was offered by Senator Richard Durbin (Dem., IL) with 10 cosponsors, four of whom were not cosponsors of S.299 [2]  The proposed resolution was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee.

In addition to these 18 senators, the following seven (for a total of 25) can also be regarded as supporters of reconciliation based upon statements on their official websites or other comments or actions mentioned in the press: Tammy Baldwin (Dem., WI), Chris Coons (Dem., DE), Al Franken (Dem., MN), Chris Murphy (Dem., CT), Rand Paul (Rep., KY), Pat Roberts (Rep., KS) and Harry Reid (Dem., NV).

Thus, at least 25 Senators are on record apparently supporting reconciliation with Cuba

2. Opposing reconciliation

As of February 10, the Senate had on its agenda one substantive bill relating to Cuba that can be seen as indirectly opposed to reconciliation.

S.165 (Detaining Terrorists To Protect America Act of 2015) would extend and enhance prohibitions and limitations with respect to the transfer or release of individuals detained at the U.S. Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.This bill was referred to the Armed Services Committee. It was offered by Senator Kelly Ayotte (Rep., NH) with 26 Republican cosponsors [3] One of the cosponsors, however, is Senator Jerry Moran, who was a cosponsor of S.299 and who spoke in favor of ending the embargo at the launch of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba. Thus, I believe that only 25 of these cosponsors can be counted in the anti-reconciliation camp.

At least one other Senator belongs in this camp. Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), who is a Cuban-American, is vehemently opposed to reconciliation as are the other two Cuban-American Senators–Ted Cruz (Rep., TX) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), both of  whom are cosponsors of S.165.

Thus, at least 27 Senators are on record apparently opposing reconciliation.

B. U.S. House of Representatives

There are at least 43 representatives favoring reconciliation while 52 do not. That leaves the other 340 representatives not accounted for.

1. Favoring reconciliation

As of February 10, the House had eight pending bills favorable to reconciliation with Cuba.

The following three seek to end the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

  • The leading one seems to be H.R.403 (Free Trade with Cuba Act) that was introduced by Representative Charles Rangel (Dem., NY) with 27 Democratic cosponsors [4] It has been referred for consideration to the House Foreign Affairs and six other committees.[5] The bill would end the embargo, and its  section 2 would have Congress find that “Cuba is no longer a threat to the [U.S.] or Western Hemisphere;” the U.S. ” is using economic, cultural, academic, and scientific engagement to support its policy of promoting democratic and human rights reforms [in other Communist regimes];” and the U.S. “can best support democratic change in Cuba by promoting trade and commerce, travel, communications, and cultural, academic, and scientific exchanges.”
  • The other two similar bills to end the embargo are H.R.274 (United States-Cuba Normalization Act, 2015) by Rep. Bobby Rush (Dem., IL) without any cosponsors, and H.R.735 (To lift the trade embargo on Cuba, and for other purposes) by Rep. Jose Serrano (Dem., NY) with Rep. Rangel as a cosponsor, both of whom are on the record as supporters of of H.R.403. These bills too were referred to the same seven committees for consideration.

 Rep. Rangel on February 2nd also introduced H.R.635 (Promoting American Agricultural and Medical Exports to Cuba Act of 2015) to facilitate the export of U.S. agricultural products to Cuba, to remove impediments to the export to Cuba of medical devices and medicines, to allow travel to Cuba by U.S. legal residents, to establish an agricultural export promotion program with respect to Cuba. With 25 of the same Democratic cosponsors, the bill was referred to the Foreign Affairs and four other committees.

There are two bills to expand U.S. residents ability to travel to Cuba. Rep. Rangel on February 2nd introduced H.R.634 (Export Freedom to Cuba Act of 2015) with 25 of the same Democratic cosponsors of H.R.403 plus John Garamendi (Dem., CA) and Mark Pocan (Dem., WI). It has provisions for freedom to travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens and legal residents.It was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee. A similar bill to expand U.S. citizens travel to Cuba (H.R.664: Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015) was offered on February 2nd by Rep. Mark Sanford (Rep., SC) with 12 cosponsors.[6] It also was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

A more limited travel bill was introduced by Representative Jose Serrano (Dem., NY). It is H.R.738: To waive certain prohibitions with respect to nationals of Cuba coming to the United States to play organized professional baseball. Its sole cosponsor is Representative Rangel and was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

On January 27th Minnesota’s Representative Betty McCollum introduced H.R.570 (Stop Wasting Taxpayer Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act) to stop Radio Marti and Television Marti broadcasts to Cuba. McCollum was a cosponsor of H.R.403 while HR. 570 has no cosponsors. It was referred to the Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees.

I am proud to say that all five Democratic Representatives from Minnesota by offering or cosponsoring bills appear to be in favor of this reconciliation. In addition, two of Minnesota’s three Republican Representatives have made statements indicating at least receptivity to favoring the reconciliation, and this analysis counts them as undecided. [7]

Our newest Representative Tom Emmer said, “By all accounts the Cuban people are worse off today than when [the embargo] started. So clearly that’s not working. And I’m supportive of engaging in diplomacy, starting to re-engage in diplomatic relations with Cuba, to begin that process to hopefully someday getting to normalize that relationship. But it’s two separate things. One, it’s diplomacy, and down the road is normalization.” In addition, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Emmer focused on three issues in questioning Administration witnesses: reparations for Cubans who have been persecuted by the Castro regime, payments for U.S. interests that lost property to the regime and safe harbor of U.S. fugitives within Cuba. Emmer also said or suggested if certain conditions are met he could support ending the embargo.

Another Minnesota Republican Representative, Rep. Erik Paulsen, said, “We should be looking at opportunities to open up trade between the United States and Cuba so we can export more American goods and services. However, the President should have engaged Congress before making concessions to the Cuban government.” (Id.) It may also be significant that his district includes the headquarters of Cargill Incorporated, the leader of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba

Thus, there are at least 40 Representatives who appear to be in favor of this reconciliation with differing levels of commitment.

2. Opposing reconciliation

There are two pending bills, both relating to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba that can be seen as opposing reconciliation, as of February 10.

The first is H.R.654 (Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Protection Act). It was introduced by David Jolly (Rep., FL)  with 36 Republican cosponsors, none of whom is from Minnesota. [8] It was referred to the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The other bill (H.R.401: Detaining Terrorists to Protect America Act of 2015) which would prohibit the release or transfer of certain Guantanamo Bay detainees and the construction or modification of any other facility to house such detainees. It was offered by Representative Jackie Walkorski (Rep., IN) with 29 Republican cosponsors, of whom 17 were not cosponsors of H.R.654. [9] It was referred to the Armed Services Committee.

Accordingly there are at least 54 Representatives on the record against reconciliation. Three of them are Cuban-Americans (Carlos Curbello, Mario Diaz–Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) with the latter two being the most vocal in their persistent criticism of reconciliation. Another Cuban-American Representative (Albio Sires (Dem., NJ)) has not been an author or cosponsor of any of these bills, but his website includes a rejection of the President’s decisions to seek reconciliation with Cuba. [10]

III. Conclusion

As a supporter of reconciliation, I am anxious that this year both houses of Congress abolish the embargo and support other measures to promote that reconciliation. Therefore, I urge all supporters to say thank you to those legislators who already are on our side, to identify the “undecided” legislators and seek to persuade them to become supporters and to inform our fellow citizens of the important issues in this controversy and to seek to persuade them to be supporters.

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[1] The 13 cosponsors of S.299 are the following: John Boozman (Rep., AR), Barbara Boxer (Dem, CA), Thomas Carper (Dem., DE), Susan Collins (Rep., ME), Richard Durbin (Dem., IL) ), Michael Enzi (Rep., WY), Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT), Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), Jack Reed (Dem., RI), Debbie Stabenow (Dem., MI), Tom Udall (Dem., NM) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Dem., RI). Senator Moran also spoke in favor of ending the embargo at the launch of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.

[2] The four cosponsors of S.RES.26 who were not cosponsors of S.299 are the following: Sherrod Brown (Dem., OH), Benjamin Cardin (Dem., MD), Tim Kaine (Dem., VA) and Barbara Mikulski (Dem., MD). 

[3] The 26 Republican cosponsors of S.165 are the following: John Barrasso (WY), Roy Blunt (MO), John Boozman (AR), Richard Burr (NC). John Cornyn (TX), Tom Cotton (AR), Ted Cruz (TX), Joni Ernst (IA), Deb Fischer (NE), Lindsey Graham (SC), Orrin Hatch (UT), James Inhofe (OK), Johnny Isakson (GA), Ron Johnson (WI), Mark Kirk (IL), James Lankford (OK), Mike Lee ((UT), John McCain (AZ), Jerry Moran (KS), Pat Roberts (KS), Mike Rounds (SD), Jeff Sessions (AL), Dan Sullivan (AK), Thom Tillis (NC), Pat Toomey (PA) and Roger Wicker (MS).

[4] The 27 Democratic Representative cosponsors of H.R.403 are Karen Bass (CA), William Clay (Mo), Steve Cohen (TN), John Conyers, Jr. (MI), Keith Ellison (MN), Sam Farr (CA), Chaka Fattah (PA), Raul Griaiva (AZ), Jared Huffman (CA), Sheila Jackson Lee (TX), Eddie Johnson (TX), Henry Johnson (GA), Barbara Lee (CA), Betty McCollum (MN), Jim McDermott (WA), Gregory Meeks (NY), Gwen Moore (WI), Rick Nolan (MN), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC), Collin Peterson (MN), Jared Polis (CO), Janice Schakowsky (IL), Bennie Thompson (MS), Tim Walz (MN) and Maxine Waters (CA).

[5] A prior post listed the members of the seven House committees that have jurisdiction over different portions of the three bills to end the embargo.

[6] The 12 cosponsors of H.R.664 are Kathy Astor (Rep., FL), Jason Chaffetz (Rep., UT), Kevin Cramer (Rep., ND), Rosa DeLauro (Rep., CT), Sam Farr (Dem., CA), Barbara Lee (Dem., CA), Thomas Massie (Rep., KY), James McGovern (Dem., MA), Charles Rangel (Dem., NY), Chris Van Hollen, (Rep., MD), Nydia Velazquez (Dem., NY) and Peter Welch (Dem, VT).) Of this group, eight were not sponsors or cosponsors of H.R.403 (Chaffetz, Cramer, DeLauro, Massie, McGovern, Van Hollen, Velazquez and Welch). Cramer also announced his support for ending the embargo at the launch of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.

[7] Henry, Emmer on Cuba embargo: ‘Clearly that’s not working, MINNPOST (Feb. 6, 2015). The third Minnesota Republican Representative, John Kline, appeared to be less receptive to ending the embargo. He said he’s “not confident the Administration will follow through on its promises to hold the Castro dictatorship regime accountable, and I’m concerned about revisiting relations with Cuba until all Cubans enjoy a free democracy.”

[8] The 36 Republican cosponsors of H.R.654 are Gus Bilirakis (FL), Michael Burgess (TX), Bradley Byrne (AL), Jason Chaffetz (UT), Mike Coffman (CO), Carlos Curbello (FL), Rodney Davis (IL), Ron DeSantis (FL), Mario Diaz-Balert (FL), Bill Flores (TX), Trent Franks (AZ), Louie Gohmert (TX), Trey Gowdy (TN), Andy Harris (MD), Richard Hudson (NC), Duncan Hunter (CA), Darrell Issa (CA), Bill Johnson (OH), Jeff Miller (FL), Alexander Mooney (WV), Richard Nugent (FL), Gary Palmer (AL), Robert Pittenger (NC), Bill Posey (FL), Reid Ribble (WI), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), Keith Rothfus (PA), Matt Salmon (AZ), Austin Scott (GA), Marlin Stutzman (IN), Jackie Walorski (IN), Randy Weber (TX), Roger Williams (TX), Joe Wilson (SC), Ted Yoho (FL) and Ryan Zinke (MT). Diaz-Balert and Ros-Lehtinen are Cuban-Americans who have been and are most vocal in their criticism of reconciliation. Rodney Davis, however, spoke in favor of ending the embargo at the launch of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba and should not be viewed as completely hostile to reconciliation.

[9] The 29 Republican cosponsors of H.R.401 are Andy Barr (KY), Susan Brooks (IN), Bradley Byrne (AL), Mike Coffman (CO), Paul Cook (CA), Ander Crenshaw (FL), Trent Franks (AZ), Andy Harris (MD), Jaime Herrera Beutier (WA), Duncan Hunter (CA), Darrell Issa (CA). Sam Johnson (TX), Doug Lamborn (CO), Robert Latta (OH), Luke Messer (IN), Mick Mulvaney (IN), Richard Nugent (FL), Steven Pearce (NM), Robert Pittenger (NC), Ted Poe (TX), Mike Pompeo (KS), Todd Rokita (IN), Aaron Schock (IL), Austin Scott (GA), Christopher Smith (NJ), Brad Wenstrup (OH), Joe Wilson (SC), Robert Wittman (VA) and Ryan Zinke (MT). Of these cosponsors, 16 (Barr, Brooks, Herrera, Sam Johnson, Lamborn, Latta, Messer, Mulvaney, Pearce, Poe, Pompeo, Rokita, Schock, Smith, Wenstrup and Wittman) were not cosponsors of H.R.654.

[10] Hook, Exile Haunts Cuba-American Lawmakers, W.S.J. (Dec. 20-21, 2014).

U.S. Citizens Convicted of Felonies Should Be Allowed To Vote

As mentioned in a prior post, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recently raised the issue of whether convicted felons should be entitled to vote in U.S. elections. As a result, the Committee recommended certain changes in those laws that will be discussed below.

First though we will look at U.S. laws on the subject before examining the U.N. Committee’s recommendations and ongoing efforts in the U.S. to reform these laws.

U.S. Laws on Voting by Felons

With certain exceptions, the determination of eligibility to vote in federal, state and local elections in the U.S. is left to the laws of the states.[1] Here is a summary of those laws:[2]

Number of States   Names of States and District of Colombia Felon Voting Status
2 Maine & Vermont Eligible to vote in or out of prison
14 District Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island & Utah Eligible to vote after term of incarceration
4 California, Colorado, Connecticut & New York Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole
20 Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia & Wisconsin Eligible to vote after term of incarceration + parole + probation
11 Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia & Wyoming Not eligible unless various conditions are met

Since 1996 many states have passed laws to expand felon voting rights and to simplify the process for restoration of such rights. There, however, are a few outliers that have imposed greater restrictions; they include the following:

  • In 2011 the Florida Board of Executive Clemency adopted a new policy requiring all ex-felons to wait five and seven years before applying to regain voting rights.
  • In 2011 the Iowa governor revoked an automatic restoration of voting rights for all ex-felons and instead imposed a requirement for ex-felons to apply to regain such rights.
  • In 2012, South Carolina mandated that felons on probation could not have such restoration.

The bipartisan National Association of State Legislatures (NASL) points out several problems administering these laws that make it more difficult for former felons to vote:

  • “Even in states where ex-offenders automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, the process of re-registering to vote often is difficult. One reason is the complexity of the laws and processes surrounding disenfranchisement. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whose rights can be restored. This can vary in some states according to the date of the crime, the conviction, or the release from prison, or the nature of the crime. The complex restoration process also can be daunting. It often involves lengthy paperwork, burdensome documentation, and the involvement and coordination of several state agencies.”
  • NASL adds that a “second barrier to restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders is the often inconsistent communication among agencies. The methods of communicating the loss and restoration of voting rights among courts, corrections and elections officials are not always reliable, timely or consistent. This inconsistency can result in uneven application of the law, even when the laws are clear.”
  • Another barrier, according to NASL, “is lack of information. Ex-offenders sometimes are not aware that they regain their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence. They go through life believing they cannot vote when, in fact, they can. In other cases, they are not informed of the process for regaining their rights or offered assistance in doing so. As long as they remain ignorant of the necessary steps, ex-offenders cannot begin the process of regaining voting rights.”
  • The “final obstacle” to former felons voting, says NASL, “is under-funding of parole boards in some states where offenders must apply to have their rights restored. A massive backlog of applications can exist because the agencies do not have adequate staff or resources to process them in a timely manner.”

As a result of these laws and their administration, an estimated 5,800,000 U.S. citizens were ineligible to vote in the 2008 elections. This included 1,400,000 African-American men, more than 676,000 women and 2,100,000 ex-felons who had completed their sentences. Another way of looking at this disenfranchisement, 7.7% of all African-American citizens were ineligible to vote in 2008.

All of this is happening with 2.2 million U.S. citizens in prison or jail in 2012, a larger share of the total population than in any other country and about five times greater than the average for other industrialized nations.

The U.N. Committee’s Recommendations

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides, in part, that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 [race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status]and without unreasonable restrictions: . . . (b) To vote . . . at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors. . . .”

As previously mentioned, this treaty created the U.N. Human Rights Committee and empowered it to conduct periodic reviews of compliance with that treaty by its States Parties, one of which is the United States.

Therefore, U.S. compliance with Article 25 regarding voting was one of the topics covered by the recent Committee’s report of its review of U.S. compliance with the ICCPR.

The Committee first reiterated “its concern about the persistence of state-level felon disenfranchisement laws, its disproportionate impact on minorities and the lengthy and cumbersome voting restoration procedures in states.”

The Committee then recommended that the U.S. should “ensure that all states reinstate voting rights to felons who have fully served their sentences, provide inmates with information about their voting restoration options and remove or streamline lengthy and cumbersome state voting restoration procedures, as well as review automatic denial of the vote to any imprisoned felon, regardless of the nature of the offence.”

U.S. Advocates for Expansion of Felon Voting Rights

A number of U.S. NGOs are advocates for expanding voting rights for felons. They include (a) the American Civil Liberties Union; (b) the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 national organizations promoting and protecting U.S. civil and human rights toward the goal of a more open and just society;[3] (c) the Sentencing Project, which works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration; (d) the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law;[4] and (e) the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

In addition, several prominent public officials have supported such reforms.

Earlier this year in a speech about criminal justice reform at Georgetown University, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder made extensive remarks about the need for reforming our laws regarding felon voting.[5]

The Attorney General emphasized the need to do all we can to encourage the need for successful reintegration of individuals who had been convicted of felonies, including the restoration of the “single most basic right of American citizenship—the right to vote.” Otherwise such disenfranchisement perpetuates “the stigma and isolation” of former felons and increases “the likelihood they will commit future crimes.”

Moreover, said Holder, such disenfranchisement has a “disparate impact on minority communities.” Today roughly 2,200,000 black citizens (or 1 in 13) are excluding from voting for this reason; in Florida, Kentucky and Virginia that ratio is 1 in 5. For Florida that represents 10% of the state’s potential electorate; in Mississippi, 8%.

Holder added that Iowa recently abolished automatic restoration of voting rights after completion of a criminal sentence in favor of an innocuous-sounding requirement to apply to the governor for such relief. However, according to Holder, after two years of the new policy, fewer than 12 such applications had been approved out of 8,000.

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky repeatedly has called for expansion of felon voting rights. In February 2014 he testified before a Kentucky Senate committee in support of restoring the right to vote for many non-violent felons in his state. Paul said that restoring voting rights for those who have repaid their debt to society was simply the right thing to do. In other words, “One mistake in life shouldn’t permanently block a citizen’s access to the ballot box [because the] right to vote is among the most important rights we have. It is something for which people in other countries have lost their lives.”

Following Senator Paul’s testimony, the committee and then the full Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote in Kentucky for many non-violent felons who have completed their sentences. If the Kentucky House approves the same measure and the two houses agree on a compromise bill, it will be on the ballot for voters to approve in November.[6]

In Virginia, former Governor Robert F. McDonnell (Republican) enacted a policy in 2012 that allowed those with non-violent felony convictions to have their voting rights automatically restored. In addition, McDonnell and his Democratic successor, Terry McAuliffe, have supported a state constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights to ex-felons automatically upon the completion of their sentences.

Conclusion

This problem of obstacles to felons’ voting was brought home to me when I went door-knocking for the re-election of President Obama in 2012 and encountered several people who said they were not eligible to vote. They did not say why, but I surmised that they had been convicted of felonies and had not yet completed their parole or probation. I felt then (and now) that they were entitled as U.S. citizens to have their voices heard in the election.

Given the high levels of incarceration in the U.S. and the deplorable conditions in most of our prisons, these potential voters should provide a way to increase the importance of this public policy issue and to be a force for improving those conditions.

Another benefit of such reforms should be the elimination of the supposed “need” to have restrictive state voter “ID” laws to eliminate or reduce purported voter fraud. A Wisconsin voter “ID” law on April 29th was stricken down as unconstitutional by a federal district court.

I hope that all U.S. citizens become concerned about the disenfranchisement of our fellow citizens who have been convicted of felonies and become advocates for changing the state laws that cause this deprivation.

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[1] The U.S Constitution provides that “Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations [set by the States for the Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives] except [not] as to the Places of chusing Senators” (Art. I, sec. 4). The Fourteenth Amendment says,”All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.  No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” (14th Amendment.) (The 14th Amendment also implicitly endorses a state’s denial or abridgment of a U.S. citizen’s right to vote because of participation in “rebellion, or other crime” in connection with allocation of seats in the House of Representatives.) The Constitution further provides, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude [slavery]” (15th Amendment) or “sex” (19th Amendment) or “age [18 years of age or older]” (26th Amendment). In addition, the federal Voting Rights Acts of 1965 and of 2006 imposed certain measures to implement the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, and last year the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated an important part of the latter statute.

[2] Greater details on these laws are available on a ProCon website, on the Brennan Center website and on a map prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union.

[3] The Leadership Conference submitted its report on felon voting to the U.N. Human Rights Committee in connection with the latter’s review of U.S. human rights.

[4] The Brennan Center along with ACLU is supporting the proposed federal Democracy Restoration Act that would restore voting rights to ex-felons who had completed their incarceration. It was introduced in 2014 by Representative John Conyers, Jr. (H.R. 4459) and Senator Ben Cardin (S.2235).

[5] The U.N. Human Rights Committee’s concluding observations noted its “satisfaction” with Attorney General Holder’s speech, which also was applauded  by a New York Times editorial.

[6] On March 5th the Kentucky House rejected the Senate bill because it did not go far enough in expanding the voting rights, and by the end of March, legislators did not think a compromise was likely this session of the legislature. On April 16th, however, the House passed a bill that will prompt a conference committee to try to work out a compromise that both houses could accept.

GOP Senators Continue To Flirt with Filibusters

This past January U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to press for adoption on a simple majority vote (at least 51 of the 100 Senators) of significant, but still flawed, reforms of the body’s filibuster rule. Instead Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell agreed to much weaker changes to the rule. Past posts have expressed my dissatisfaction with this rule and the recent change.

As a result, the Senate and the U.S. are still facing threatened filibusters by Senate Republicans over confirmation of presidential nominations.

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

The most recent example is the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense.

Yes, on February 26th the U.S. Senate did vote, 71 to 27, to invoke cloture and end debate on voting on confirmation of this nomination. The 71 votes came from 53 Democratic, 2 Independent and 18 Republican Senators, including Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who continued to be severe critics of Hagel. (Two Democratic Senators did not vote: Mark Udall and Frank Lautenberg.)

Later that same day the Senate voted, 58 to 41, to confirm Hagel for this position. For this vote, only four Republican Senators were in the majority: Senators Thad Cochran, Mike Johanns, Richard Shelby and Rand Paul. (Senator Lautenberg did not vote.)

While I am pleased that there was no prolonged filibuster of this nomination and that the  Senate did vote on confirmation, getting there, in my opinion, was needlessly prolonged and again demonstrated the dysfunctionality of the Senate. Here are some of the reasons for that opinion:

  • In early February Democratic Senator Carl Levin, the Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, delayed a committee vote on the nomination in an attempt to garner support for same from some of the Republican committee members.
  • On February 14th, the Senate failed by one vote to invoke cloture, 59 to 40 (Majority Leader Harry Reid later switched his “Yes” vote to “No” so he could later move to reconsider cloture).
  • Republican Senators Lindsay Graham and James Inhofe had put “holds”on the nomination and thereby prevented a vote on confirmation; Graham wanted more information from the Administration about the Benghazi attack (in which Hagel had no involvement) while Inhofe fomented that Hagel was anti-Israel.
  • Chris Cillizza, a Washington Post columnist, reported that Republicans were voting against cloture because there were no political risks from doing so; they said they had legitimate doubts about Hagel’s ability to lead the Pentagon; and resistance was a Republican rallying cry.
  • Another Washington Post columnist, Jonathan Bernstein, stated that Republican Senators are insisting on a 60 vote requirement for virtually everything because many of them see no difference on cloture and substantive voting and do not require extraordinary reasons to vote against cloture.
  • Senator McCain said that one of the reasons for Republican opposition to Hagel, their former Republican Senate colleague, was his very vocal criticism of President George W. Bush over the Iraq war.
  • Some Republican Senators were opposed to Hagel for allegedly receiving money from a group called “Friends of Hamas” — a rumor that started with a joke about a nonexistent group.
  • On February 15th 15 Republican Senators wrote a joint letter to President Obama asking him to withdraw the Hagel nomination.
John Brennan
John Brennan

This dysunctionality is not over with the confirmation of Hagel. Senator McCain has threatened a similar GOP strategy with respect to confirmation of John Brennan as Director of the CIA.

Jacob J. Lew
Jacob J. Lew

On the other hand, the Senate on February 27th confirmed, 71 (including 20 Republicans) to 26, the nomination of Jacob J. Lew for Secretary of the Treasury.

And on February 25, 2013, the Senate confirmed, 93-0, Robert Bacharach to be a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. He, however,  had been appointed to that position in January 2012, and in the last Congress, in July 2012, clouture was defeated, 56-34.

All of this silliness over Chuck Hagel and potentially over John Brennan would have been prevented if the Senate this past January had adopted more significant reform of its rules regarding filibuster.