In a vote that exposed a deep rift among Democrats over how far to push their agenda on racial justice and voting rights, the House on Tuesday rejected an amendment offered by progressive Democrats to a sweeping elections reform package that would have restored voting rights for people who are currently incarcerated in state and federal prisons.
The amendment was rejected by a vote of 97-328, indicating uncertainty among moderate Democrats about serious reforms to the criminal legal system as Republicans work to restrict ballot access.
Rep. Cori Bush, the freshman congresswoman from Missouri known for Black Lives Matter activism, was the primary author of the amendment. Speaking on the House floor, Bush said 5 million people — including 1.2 million women and one in six Black people — are currently denied the right to vote due to criminal laws. For Bush and other proponents of voter enfranchisement, restoring voting rights for incarcerated people is crucial to confronting the nation’s legacy of racist voter suppression.
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“This cannot continue,” Bush said. “Disenfranchising our own citizens, it is not justice.”
In the wake of an election marked by unprecedented turnout and former President Donald Trump’s incessant lies about a stolen election, partisan battle lines are now being drawn around the ballot box in Congress and across the country. Lawmakers are not just debating how we vote, they are also clashing over who gets to vote in the first place — and the results could define how power is distributed and redistributed in the United States for years to come.
The House is currently debating H.R. 1, the For the People Act, a sweeping voting rights and campaign finance reform package that represents the Democrats’ answer to Trump’s lies about voter fraud and Republican attempts at the state level to restrict ballot access. The legislation is designed to make it easier to vote by expanding early and mail-in voting and implementing automatic voter registration, among other provisions.
Since the beginning of the year, conservative lawmakers in 43 states have pushed at least 250 bills that would make it harder to vote — more than seven times the number of restrictive bills introduced over the same time period last year, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California who is shepherding H.R. 1 toward a final vote this week, noted that H.R. 1 would restore voting rights for people with felony convictions after they have served their sentences. Lofgren said H.R. 1 would also end “prison gerrymandering,” the practice of counting prisoners where they are incarcerated rather than in their home districts when drawing congressional district lines. While the Democratic Party does not have an official position on Bush’s amendment to restore voting rights for people who are currently incarcerated, Lofgren said the proposal “has merit.”
“If you are going to count the individuals for redistricting purposes in their prisons, then I think they have to be allowed to vote there, or else that entire scheme is completely wrong,” Lofgren said.
In every state besides Vermont and Maine (as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico), people incarcerated on felony charges lose their right to vote while incarcerated. In 30 states, the right to vote is not automatically restored upon release from prison, creating massive barriers to that ballot for formerly incarcerated people. This causes mass voter disenfranchisement in communities of color that are disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration and over-policing.
“The stripping of the right to vote for incarcerated people and especially Black folks is directly connected to the racist past of our country, from slavery to Jim Crow to mass incarceration,” said Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Democrat from Michigan who backed the amendment along with other progressives.
Republicans, fearful of any measure that would allow for greater access to the ballot, made dehumanizing statements about “violent criminals” and used the voter enfranchisement amendment to paint H.R. 1 as a radical overhaul of the electoral system. However, voting rights groups say H.R. 1 is necessary for protecting voting rights as voter suppression takes center stage in the GOP agenda.
“And just to put it out there as a reminder, we’re talking about actual people, we are talking about humanity, we’re talking about access, we’re talking about the right to vote,” Bush said.
The GOP attacks may have spooked some moderate Democrats. A vote on the amendment split the House Democratic caucus between its moderate and progressive wings, with 119 Democrats voting against the amendment and 97 supporting voting rights. In a tweet after the vote, Bush vowed to continue the fight for universal voting rights. Across the country, grassroots activists are working to restore voting rights for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, and they have already had some success in states such as Florida and Louisiana.
“We will not stop fighting until we dismantle white supremacy in all of its forms,” Bush said.