LINCOLN — Shakur Abdullah got out of state prison in 2016, but it wasn’t until two years later that he felt truly part of society again.

That moment came during last year’s elections, when he finally was allowed to vote.

“It was the most uplifting, cathartic thing that I have participated in since my release,” the 61-year-old Omaha man told lawmakers Wednesday, while the wait to regain voting rights had left him feeling “marginalized and ostracized.”

Abdullah joined several others in calling for Nebraska to restore voting rights for felons as soon as they complete their sentences, including time on probation or parole.

Legislative Bill 83, introduced by State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, would do away with a state law requiring felons to wait two years after finishing their sentences before they are allowed to vote.

Wayne called the two-year wait an “arbitrary” period adopted to get the current law passed in 2005. That law was enacted over the veto of then-Gov. Dave Heineman.

The current law partially undid a state constitutional ban on felon voting that dates to the 1875 Nebraska Constitution. Such bans spread after the Civil War as a way to reduce the number of freed slaves who could vote.

“We are trying to erase a dark, dark period in state history,” Wayne said.

In addition, he said studies show that allowing former inmates to participate in the civic life of their communities helps them more quickly reintegrate into society and cuts down on recidivism.

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A report released in 2017 by Civic Nebraska estimated that more than 7,000 Nebraskans with felony convictions who have completed their sentences do not have the right to vote.

Wayne got a similar bill passed by the Legislature in 2017, but it was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

In his veto message, Ricketts said the bill violated the state constitution by assuming the power to pardon that properly belongs to the executive branch of government. He also argued that the two-year waiting period gives felons an incentive to maintain a clean record.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln quizzed several testifiers about whether the Legislature has the power to restore voting rights to felons or whether a constitutional amendment would be needed.

Danielle Conrad, executive director of ACLU of Nebraska, and Spike Eickholt, testifying for the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, argued that the Legislature does have that legal authority.

They cited a pair of Nebraska Supreme Court cases that dealt with similar questions. They also pointed to the state’s current law, which has never been challenged in court.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states allow felons to vote after they complete their sentences, while two never take away their right to vote.

Iowa is one of three states that permanently ban felons from voting, but Gov. Kim Reynolds made it one of her priorities this year to undo that ban. On Wednesday, she hailed legislative action to advance a proposed constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for felons.

“Today’s unanimous vote by the House Judiciary Committee sends a strong message in favor of second chances and forgiveness for felons,” she said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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