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DC to restore voting rights to incarcerated felons, former inmates

Washington, D.C., is set to be the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to allow convicted felons to vote from prison, according to an emergency police reform bill passed by the D.C. Council Tuesday. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — Washington, D.C., is set to be the first jurisdiction in the U.S. to allow convicted felons to vote from prison, according to an emergency police reform bill passed by the D.C. Council Tuesday. If approved by Mayor Muriel Bowser, the emergency bill would be in effect for the next 90 days before expiring in the beginning of October. 

However, the council could later vote to make the provision permanent in the fall. 

This would be a significant move, as 47 states (including D.C.) didn’t allow incarcerated felons to vote by the end of 2019. In some states like Iowa, convicted felons never regain these voting rights even after they’re released. 

In Utah, those convicted as felons regain voting rights after being released from prisons after completing their sentences. 

The U.S. has been known to have some of the strictest policies in the world when it comes to voting rights for incarcerated felons, with decisions varying state to state. 

As a result, more than 6 million Americans couldn’t vote in the 2018 midterm elections. Critics argue this disproportionately affects Black populations, arguing some restrictions stem directly from Jim Crow laws in the South. 

Current law allows residents in D.C. Jail to vote while in custody, aligning it with both Maine and Vermont — the only two states that never withheld voting rights from incarcerated felons. Up to 4,500 people could be affected by this new law, as D.C. has a high incarceration rate — with debates on whether it has the highest rates in the country. 

The measure was first introduced by Robert White in 2019, who argued there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution that strips this right from people convicted of felonies. 

“Those who have been convicted do not lose their civil rights,” White said during a White House press conference in June 2019. “They don’t lose their constitutional protections. They don’t lose their citizenship. Why then would we treat them like they’re outside of our democracy and deny them the most basic rights of democracy?”

 

Talks on whether incarcerated felons should have the right to vote has been met with debate within the federal government, with backlash against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) who endorsed the idea in 2019 and throughout his presidential campaign. 

It was a topic that divided several of the Democratic presidential candidates during primary debates. It also prompted criticism from President Donald Trump and conservative allies. 

Under the D.C. emergency bill, inmates can request mail-in ballots — although, elections officials won’t be required to send ballots to all prisoners in 2020. The bill requires these absentee ballots be made available to felons held at the D.C. Jail, making it possible to vote as soon as the November presidential election. 

Beginning in 2021, these efforts will shift to try and provide inmates with a voter registration form and education materials along with their absentee ballot.