The District and every state but Maine and Vermont strip convicted felons of their right to vote while in prison, which activists say is a legacy of the Jim Crow era.
“When someone is convicted of a crime, they lose their freedom, but they don’t lose most of their rights,” council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who spearheaded the bill, said in his opening remarks. “Why, then, do they lose the right to vote?”
Activists say the 1955 law that prevents imprisoned felons from voting disproportionately affects communities of color in the District, where more than 90 percent of the incarcerated population is black. About 6,000 D.C. residents are currently incarcerated in federal facilities.
Samuel Buggs, an affordable housing advocate and resident of Jubilee Housing, was among several ex-offenders who testified at the hearing. He recounted his experiences of being arrested at age 16 and charged with two armed robberies and use of heroin.
“Apart from the hurt I caused to those around me . . . The thing that weighed heavily on my spirit is that I gave up the possibility to vote,” he said.
The issue gained national attention in April when a question on prisoner voting at a CNN town hall drew disparate answers from the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he believes “every single person does have the right to vote,” but others were more skeptical, with South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg firmly disagreeing.
President Trump and others have blasted prisoner voting, suggesting that Democrats would restore the vote to the Boston Marathon bomber and others serving sentences for heinous crimes.
The District already has some of the most progressive laws governing the voting rights of those facing incarceration. Along with 14 other states, the District automatically restores voting rights to felons upon release from prison, and individuals incarcerated for misdemeanor crimes can vote from prison.
“I really don’t think this is all that controversial in D.C.,” said council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
“Here, we feel strongly about the right to vote,” Allen said, referencing the District’s lack of representation in Congress, which local lawmakers have long campaigned to change. “We take seriously what we believe is a fundamental right — the right to representation.”
White agreed, adding that he has been “really surprised” by how smooth-sailing the process has been.
The bill was co-introduced in June by all 13 members of the D.C. Council and, according to White, has received little pushback. A spokesman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said in a statement Thursday that the mayor “wants to involve everybody in the franchise” but stopped short of saying whether Bowser explicitly supports the legislation.
The U.S. attorney’s office, which serves as both the local and the federal prosecutor for the District, declined to comment.
Midway through the public hearing, Allen acknowledged that support for the bill seemed “overwhelming” and urged witnesses to discuss issues surrounding the implementation of the bill, such as whether violent offenders should be excluded.
The panel, which comprised a mix of public witnesses, activists and local officials, responded with a resounding no.
“There should be no carve-outs,” said Blair Bowie, legal counsel at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center. “This is a really slippery road.”
Both White and Allen said moving forward, the council will focus on how, rather than whether, to restore the vote to imprisoned felons.
Like all other D.C. legislation, the bill, if passed, would be subject to congressional review. White said he is confident the legislation will become law.
“We’re not out of line with the rest of the country here,” he said. “Just ahead of the curve.”
A second public hearing on the issue is scheduled for Oct. 29 at 6 p.m., at the R.I.S.E Demonstration Center at 2730 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.