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New Suffragists Fight to Gain Ballot for Incarcerated People

Despite myths to the contrary, denying the vote to people behind bars has no benefit for public safety.

Suffrage activist Desmond Meade is hugged by a friend inside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office after registering to vote. People with felony convictions regained their voting rights in Florida on January 8, 2019.

Republicans in the largest swing state have already begun chipping away at civil rights activists’ biggest victory in the movement to restore voting rights to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people with felony convictions.

After Florida voters overwhelmingly passed a ballot measure reversing the state’s lifetime voting ban for most people convicted of felonies who have completed their sentences, the GOP-controlled state Senate voted for a bill that would drastically limit the number of people who will be allowed to cast ballots in next year’s presidential election.

Senate Republicans voted along party lines last week to pass a bill implementing the constitutional amendment approved by voters with a major caveat: The bill would require all financial obligations ordered by a judge be paid before people can vote. Civil rights activists have decried the change as a new poll tax that could keep tens of thousands from the ballot box.

The move comes as the debate over allowing incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people to vote continues to divide the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) boldly called for restoring voting rights to all people with felony convictions, including those behind bars, at a presidential town hall last month, a position that is not shared by any other major candidate.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) has become the most recent candidate to take a swipe at Sanders over the proposal. Senator Booker’s criminal legal reform bill, The Next Step Act, was introduced in March and would allow people with felony convictions to vote in federal elections. However, Booker called Sanders’s stance in favor of voting rights for all currently incarcerated people “frustrating.”

Only two states currently allow people who are incarcerated to vote: Maine and Sanders’s home state of Vermont. In 22 other states, people are disenfranchised during incarceration and parole and/or probation. In these states, people with felony convictions may also have to pay any outstanding restitution before their voting rights are restored, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

About 6.1 million citizens are currently denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project; that’s 1 in 13 Black adults compared to 1 in every 56 non-Black adults.

Debate over the issue has been slowly gaining traction in several states, including conservative states, such as Kentucky and Alabama.

Debate over the issue has been slowly gaining traction in several states, including conservative states such as Kentucky and Alabama, as criminal legal reform advocates steadily push back against voting restrictions in state legislatures. Such suffrage activists are emphasizing the long-term civil constraints placed on disenfranchised communities of color in their states, and stressing that stripping incarcerated citizens of their right to vote has no benefit for public safety.

Iowa lawmakers, with the support of Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, recently tried to change the state’s lifetime disenfranchisement law, but the proposal failed to advance out of the state Senate. Legislation to ease voting restrictions has also been proposed in California, Texas, Tennessee, Connecticut, New Jersey and Minnesota.

Still, a measure to let all incarcerated citizens vote didn’t make it out of the solidly Democratic Hawaii Legislature this year. Likewise, a bill to restore the voting rights of people with certain felony convictions took baby steps in the Democratically controlled New Mexico Legislature — but only after a provision to let incarcerated people vote was removed. The amended bill still died in the state Senate, however.

Beyond Booker’s Next Step Act, two other federal bills have also been introduced this year that would allow people with felony convictions to vote in federal elections. Additionally, H.R. 893, the Ex-Offender Voter Registration Act of 2019, would require the Bureau of Prisons to provide voting information to people in federal prisons upon their release.

A national coalition of suffrage organizers is pushing these types of federal and state-level legislation as a part of their Right2Vote campaign. The campaign’s national coordinator, Amani Sawari, told Truthout the campaign was originally initiated by Jailhouse Lawyers Speak, an organization of incarcerated activists fighting the carceral system, in the aftermath of the August 21 National Prison Strike in 2018.

“I’m hesitant to vote for or support any candidate who is not in favor of expanding our democracy,” Sawari said of the Democratic candidates who have taken stances on the issue. “This is the new suffrage movement. We are trying to make sure that everyone has a voice in our democracy, and we need the voices of those who are incarcerated…. We need to make sure that we change these [prison] environments by incorporating their voice into the solutions.”

Sawari is campaigning in her own state, Washington, for two bills that would provide voter information after release and restore voting rights to people with felony convictions who are in community custody, the state’s version of parole. The latter bill died in the state legislature, but Sawari hopes the bill will be reintroduced next session.

“We know that people aren’t the worst thing that they’ve done or been convicted of, and that those closest to the problem are closest, also, to the solution.”

Sawari attended a hearing on New Mexico’s enfranchisement bill, and watched it pass committee. While the legislation, HB 57, died in the Senate, the Right2Vote coalition is still actively pursuing legislation or grassroots campaigns in 10 other states, aiming to restore voting rights to some or all people convicted of felonies, or to end lifetime bans.

Selinda Guerrero, a community organizer with Millions for Prisoners New Mexico, tells Truthout she likewise began work on HB 57 after incarcerated people in her state listed enfranchisement as one of their demands during the 2018 national prison strike. She joined the Right2Vote coalition soon after.

“We felt like it was time to bring [the bill forward],” Guerrero says. “We knew it was ambitious…. Unfortunately, there were some moderate Democrats who just couldn’t get aligned with it.”

Despite having a strong advocate in the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Gail Chasey, another strong advocate of voting rights for those released from prison, State Senator Bill O’Neill, signed on as a sponsor only after the clause on prison-voting was nixed. Still, Guerrero says, the inclusion of prison-based voting in the original version of the bill was itself a meaningful step.

“We never even imagined we’d get as far as we did,” Guerrero said. “We helped to change the narrative of the way people are looking at this issue, and we’ve kept it in the forefront. I’m really proud of that.”

In California, the suffrage group Initiate Justice is trying to persuade the state’s Democratically controlled legislature to put a measure on the 2020 ballot that would restore voting rights only to those on parole, not those who are currently incarcerated. Last year, the group tried to gather signatures for a ballot measure that would have allowed those in prison to vote but weren’t able to raise enough money to fund the effort.

The group’s founder, Taina Vargas-Edmond, isn’t even sure if the new version (which excludes incarcerated people) will make it through the California Legislature but hopes it will have a better chance than last year’s attempt, even though she believes the currently incarcerated should also have their voting rights restored.

Vargas-Edmond started Initiate Justice in 2016 alongside her husband, who was incarcerated at the time, because, she says, she wanted people who have been impacted by mass incarceration to have the tools and resources necessary to engage in the political process.

“In general, folks haven’t really questioned why we remove a citizen’s right to vote just because they are incarcerated,” Vargas-Edmond told Truthout. “In a lot of people’s minds, losing this right isn’t something that is really considered too extreme.”

Still, she is hopeful that the legislature will be more open to a ballot measure as the debate over enfranchisement continues to gain traction on the national stage. However, she cautions against some of the Democratic candidates’ calls to deny voting rights to people convicted of violent crimes.

“It doesn’t surprise me that there has been a more lukewarm position on felony disenfranchisement. This is an idea that is still pretty popular, and as the country begins to move forward, it’s happening very precipitously,” Vargas-Edmond says. “I think it’s important that we don’t exclude people who are currently incarcerated, that we don’t exclude people regardless of what their conviction is.”

“This is not a criminal justice issue; this is a democracy issue.”

Meanwhile, suffrage organizers with Emancipation Initiative and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign in Massachusetts are also pursuing a ballot initiative for 2022 that would restore voting rights to currently incarcerated people with felony convictions — the only population impacted by the carceral system who remain disenfranchised in the state.

A bill authored by State Senator Adam Hinds also sought to amend a section of the state Constitution to restore voting rights to incarcerated people, but the proposal did not advance. People incarcerated for felonies lost their right to vote in Massachusetts in 2000 after voters approved a constitutional amendment prohibiting them from casting ballots while incarcerated.

Rachel Corey, an organizer with Emancipation Initiative, told Truthout the group plans to start collecting the more than 80,000 signatures needed for a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment this fall.

“These aren’t easy conversations,” Corey said. “They’re not easy elevator pitches…. But we know that people aren’t the worst thing that they’ve done or been convicted of, and that those closest to the problem [within the criminal legal system] are closest, also, to the solution.”

Millions for Prisoners New Mexico’s Guerrero agrees. “This is not a criminal justice issue; this is a democracy issue,” she says.

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