Voting is the most fundamental right of our democracy. Yet
more than 5 million American citizens are not allowed to vote in our elections because they have felony convictions. Forty-eight states and the District of Columbia carved these citizens out of our democracy when they passed laws stripping them of their right to vote.
Disenfranchisement laws, passed mostly during the Jim Crow era, draw an undemocratic connection between an appropriate punishment for a crime and the most basic right of democracy. When residents are convicted of a felony, they do not lose their citizenship or most of their rights as citizens, including the right to counsel and freedom of speech. Why, then, have we taken away their right to vote?
As an at-large member of the D.C. Council, I recently introduced the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019, which would reestablish voting rights for incarcerated residents with felony convictions. Each of my colleagues on the Council joined me in introducing this bill, and the District’s attorney general also supports it. This bill would make the District the first jurisdiction in the nation to re-enfranchise all of its incarcerated residents.
Since 1997, more than 20 states have eased some of their felony disenfranchisement restrictions. As a result, more than 1 million people have regained their voting rights. Most recently, Florida voters passed the historic Amendment 4, a ballot measure that gave an estimated 1.4 million previously incarcerated Floridians the right to vote. Unfortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has acted to dilute the voters’ wishes by signing a law to prevent previously incarcerated people from voting until they have paid all fines, fees and restitution. This is nothing short of a poll tax, providing those with financial means the right to vote while the poor remain barred from the ballot box. This is a terrible step backward, but still less egregious than taking away incarcerated citizens’ right to vote in the first place.
In a democracy, our vote is our most powerful tool to express our feelings on public policies and to ensure responsiveness from our elected officials. Residents in the criminal justice system are impacted by our laws and need some level of government services, just like everyone else. Yet, they are voiceless, an experience familiar to all of us in the District who pay federal taxes but have no voting representation in Congress.
We have all heard arguments against ending disenfranchisement, often rooted in understandable anger about the impact that crime has on our communities. Continuing to strip our residents of their right to vote does not make our neighborhoods safer. In fact, it makes us less safe because there is no accountability for elected officials, and a criminal justice system that remains largely silent on overuse of solitary confinement, violence in prisons and many other aspects of incarceration that almost ensure that our residents return home worse, not better.
This is personal for many of us in the District as we have a higher incarceration rate than any state in the country. 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. Throughout the history of American democracy, we have continued to expand the franchise of voters, except for incarcerated citizens whose votes we have taken, and we are no better for it.