The bill is expected to take effect in the coming weeks, with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) unlikely to veto it, but as emergency legislation it would expire in 90 days unless the council approves a permanent version this fall.
Federal inmates could request absentee ballots for the November election, but elections officials would not be required to send those ballots to all prisoners this year.
Advocates have cast voting by inmates as a civil rights issue, noting the history of voting restrictions as a tool of disenfranchising African Americans, who are disproportionately locked up for crimes. Supporters of voting by inmates say the fundamental right to vote shouldn’t be taken away with a criminal conviction.
“Frankly, it is used to suppress the black vote, and the District isn’t going to stand for it,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who included the inmate voting provision in his policing legislation.
The effort to let prisoners vote is part of a broader movement to restore voting rights for convicted criminals. Several states, including Virginia in 2017, restored voting rights to felons who had finished serving their sentences, while others — including Maryland in 2016 — expanded rights to those on parole.
“The impact of disenfranchisement leaves our incarcerated residents disconnected from society, further alienating them from the community to which they will eventually return and jeopardizing the success of their reentry,” council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who spearheaded the idea, wrote in an op-ed last year.
The District has allowed felons to vote after leaving prison, and also allows those convicted of misdemeanors to vote from jail. But the city joined every state except Vermont and Maine last century in barring felons from voting while incarcerated.
No state has since restored those voting rights.
The issue of voting by inmates briefly flared up in the Democratic presidential primary race when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) favored it during a town hall, prompting an outcry from Republicans and conservative media.
White’s proposal to let D.C. prisoners vote caught the attention of “Fox & Friends,” and the council member appeared last year on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show on the network to defend his bill.
The District has no prisons, but some felons are housed at the D.C. jail before they are transferred to federal facilities. The legislation requires the D.C. Board of Elections — which already works with the jail to facilitate voting for those awaiting trial who have not been convicted, or are serving time on misdemeanor charges — to distribute absentee ballots for felons being held at the jail.
The Bureau of Prisons says it has 2,600 D.C. residents in its custody — though the local D.C. Corrections Information Council pegs the number closer to 4,500. The difference appears to be a matter of counting residents locked up for felonies under D.C. law vs. federal law.
The emergency legislation directs the elections board in 2021 to reach out to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to obtain the contact information of D.C. resident inmates and to send them ballots. The prisoners would be registered at their last address before incarceration.
A spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons declined to comment on the D.C. legislation but noted its policies allow for inmates to receive absentee ballots with prepaid return envelopes.
Michael Bennett, the chairman of the D.C. Board of Elections, said officials must still work out logistics of distributing ballots. Ahead of the June 2 primary election, elections officials struggled to mail absentee ballots to voters living in the city, contributing to long wait times at the polls.
Advocates acknowledge helping imprisoned D.C. residents to vote is no easy feat.
“It will be incredibly challenging to make sure people know they have the right to vote and get them their absentee ballots,” said Nicole Porter, advocacy director for the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates inmate voting enfranchisement. “That said, it’s historic and significant that a city council would enfranchise this population.”