WASHINGTON (AP) -- Rep. Keith Ellison said Friday he'll pursue legislation that would require states to let ex-felons vote in federal elections once they're out of jail or prison, which would nullify laws in states across the country.
Ellison, a freshman Minnesota Democrat, had introduced legislation to let ex-felons vote when he was in the Minnesota Legislature. Now he's aiming for a bigger impact.
"Allowing felons to vote signals our value on redemption," he said in an interview. "We should believe in second chances. We should believe in redemption."
The question, Ellison said, is whether people who serve their sentences can join their communities' civic life.
"If what we want people to do is reintegrate, to rehabilitate," he said, "I can think of very few things that are more public-spirited than voting."
A report by The Sentencing Project last year found that almost 4 million Americans who have completed their prison terms remain unable to vote, because laws in most states prevent them from doing so.
According to the group, which supports criminal justice reform, there are 10 states in which a felony conviction can result in a lifetime voting ban. Minnesota and many other states let ex-felons vote once they have finished their parole and probation. Only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- let prison inmates vote.
Ellison isn't pushing the issue that far.
"I'd be happy if people could vote once they're out," he said. "I don't think there's any real good reason to deny you the right to vote once you're in, but, once you're out and you can vote -- that would be a system that would make sense to me."
Ellison said he's still polishing the legislation, along with other lawmakers.
The Minnesota Republican Party expressed opposition to Ellison's idea.
"Felonies are so serious that there have to be serious consequences," said Mark Drake, a party spokesman.
Ellison said one reason he's pushing the issue is because of the effect that banning ex-felons from voting has had on black voters. Last year's Sentencing Project found that in 2004, about 1 in 12 African-Americans was disenfranchised because of a felony conviction -- nearly five times the rate of non-blacks.
"It has a real disproportionate racial impact," Ellison said.
He said that many ex-felons made errors in judgment but are not bad people.
"It's easy to say they're all just monsters -- which is completely untrue," he said. "I'm not saying that people don't deserve sanctions. I spent 16 years doing criminal defense. And Lord knows I represented a lot of clients who need to be in prison. I hate to say it, but it's true. Some of them were out of their mind and needed to be locked up."
But he said many people were just "messed up, and needed a break, and needed a chance."
Ellison has already introduced bills that would ban requiring photo IDs to vote in federal elections, and would require states to have same-day voter registration for federal elections.