The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Felons from D.C. could be able to vote from prison under proposed bill

Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large) speaks with members of the media during a rally on U Street on April 8 in Washington. (Michael A. McCoy/For The Washington Post)

A group of D.C. lawmakers wants to make the nation’s capital the first jurisdiction to restore voting rights to felons while they’re still incarcerated.

Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), with a majority of the 13-member body, plans to introduce legislation Tuesday to repeal language in a 1955 law that disenfranchises D.C. residents upon felony convictions. Every state except Maine and Vermont has stripped voting rights from prisoners.

“Unfortunately in the District and across the country, incarcerated people make up a sizable population of residents,” White said. “They don’t lose their citizenship when they are incarcerated, so they shouldn’t lose their right to vote.”

The District is among jurisdictions with the fewest restrictions regarding felons and voting. Felons in the District and 14 states automatically regain their voting rights when they are released from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Elections officials visit the D.C. jail to help residents who are awaiting trial cast absentee ballots.

White’s bill would thrust the District into the vanguard of the felon enfranchisement movement. Bills to eliminate lifetime voting bans for felons and to restore voting rights to those on parole or probation have won bipartisan support in statehouses and at the ballot box.

But allowing people to vote while serving time remains controversial.

The issue briefly flared up in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race, when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) backed prisoner voting during a recent CNN town hall. The rest of the field has been cool to the idea, although some suggested allowing nonviolent offenders to vote.

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.

White said he’s bracing for similar arguments against his bill.

“The Constitution makes no statement directly or indirectly that the right to vote is somehow contingent on behavior,” White said. “It is a very slippery slope when we start to decide who does and does not have the fundamental rights of democracy based on what we see as the level of crime they commit, nor do I believe that any of these extreme examples of who should not vote would tip an election.”

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Six of 13 D.C. Council members have agreed to co-introduce White’s bill: Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) and David Grosso (I-At Large).

Representatives for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) issued statements supporting expanding voting rights generally, but they did not take a stance on White’s bill. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said Monday that he saw no reason to disenfranchise prisoners, but he has not studied the issue closely.

National advocates said the District could elevate prisoner voting from the fringe of the felon enfranchisement debate.

“In D.C., a city where elected officials claim progressive governance and want to be viewed as a model in expanding rights, this would be a significant example that other states and jurisdictions could point to,” said Nicole Porter, policy director for the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group.

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White says the discussion around criminal voting restrictions should focus on the racist motivation behind the laws and how they disproportionately disenfranchise African Americans. In Virginia, one of the drafters of a 1902 Constitution that imposed a lifetime voting ban for felons cited the need “to eliminate the darkey as a political factor.”

“For 164 years there was no law on the books preventing incarcerated residents from voting, and it’s only been on our books for 64 years,” White said. “When we start to reframe our point of view on this and understand that voting is a basic tenet of our democracy, people will have a more reasoned view of this issue.”

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The District is also unique because it does not operate prisons; those convicted of crimes in the city serve sentences in federal facilities scattered around the country. About 6,000 D.C. residents are incarcerated in federal facilities.

“D.C. people are already disenfranchised and separated from their fellow residents and citizens, so it’s important that they have a chance to practice citizenship,” said Ronald L. Moten, an activist for anti-violence causes and returning citizens in the District. “We forget all about what they need when they come home from prison because they are not here. If you knew that their vote counted, that would be a whole different ballgame.”

The federal Bureau of Prisons allows prisoners to receive mail from government agencies, including absentee ballots from Maine and Vermont.

“Eligibility to vote is determined by each voting locality,” a spokesman for the agency said in response to an inquiry about the D.C. bill.

As with most D.C. legislation, the prison voting bill would be subject to congressional review, but Democratic House leaders oppose efforts to overturn D.C. bills.

The D.C. Council has passed a string of progressive legislation in recent years, including landmark measures to tax employers for paid family and medical leave, legalize assisted suicide and switch to all renewable energy sources by 2032.

But D.C. lawmakers last November also narrowly rejected legislation to lower the voting age to 16, after two of the bill’s original co-sponsors flipped their position.

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