District of Columbia residents with felony convictions could vote from inside prison under legislation introduced Tuesday with unanimous support from the D.C. Council. If the bill becomes law, the nation’s capital would join Maine and Vermont as the only places in the United States that allow felons to vote while incarcerated.
“Those who have been convicted do not lose their constitutional protections. They do not lose their civil rights. They do not lose their citizenship,” Councilmember Robert White (D), who spearheaded the effort, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “Why, then, would they lose their most fundamental democratic right?”
The legislation is part of a growing effort to restore voting rights to millions of people across the country who have been disenfranchised because of their criminal records. In 22 states, felons lose the right to vote during and after incarceration, typically until they finish parole and/or probation. And in three states, felons can lose their voting rights permanently.
Florida voted to restore voting rights to felons once they complete their sentence last year. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said in April that he supported allowing felons to vote from prison, but other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are divided on the issue.
The District of Columbia, as well as 14 states, automatically restore voting rights to felons upon release, but White and his fellow council members do not feel that is enough. If incarcerated residents want to reform an “an abusive and discriminatory system,” it is crucial this bill passes so their voices can be heard, White said.
Along with allowing incarcerated felons to vote, the pair of bills would allow the District to mail ballots to residents in federal prisons around the country so they could vote absentee. People awaiting trial or imprisoned for misdemeanor offenses are already allowed to vote absentee in D.C., according to WAMU.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine announced his “enthusiastic support” for the bill in a statement on Twitter. “When people violate the law we should hold them accountable, but we shouldn’t strip them of their rights as citizens,” Racine said.
In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people nationwide could not vote because of felony disenfranchisement, according to research from The Sentencing Project. The D.C. bill would affect about 6,000 residents serving in federal prison for felony offenses, according to The Washington Post. Those affected are predominantly low-income and/or people of color, White said.
The bill was created based on recommendations from the Commission on Reentry and Returning Citizens’ Affairs. Restoring voting rights is a way for incarcerated residents to stay connected to their communities, which is an important part of the reintegration process, White said.
D.C. residents with felonies previously had the right to vote, but that changed after Congress took over governing the District in 1955. Local government has slowly won power back over the years, but this bill, like all legislation passed by the D.C. Council, still has to be reviewed by Congress before it can become law.
“I know we can get this passed & I hope our progress inspires other jurisdictions to follow!” White said in a tweet.