Why Allowing Incarcerated People To Vote Matters

Supermajority Education Fund

September 2, 2020

A piece of emergency legislation in the nation’s capital could significantly affect the future of voting rights across the country. Last month, Washington, D.C. became the first U.S. jurisdiction to restore the right to vote for residents currently incarcerated with felony convictions. This November, the District will join Maine and Vermont — the only two states that never took voting rights away from the incarcerated population to begin with — in allowing this population to vote. The other 48 states currently have some type of felony disenfranchisement restrictions in place. 

Passing this legislation is a bold move that stands out in a time when voting rights are under attack. Over the last decade, 25 states have implemented new voting restrictions, including strict photo ID requirements, early voting limitations, and registration obstacles. In 2019 alone, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee, and Texas enacted new restrictions, reports the Brennan Center for Justice. These laws also disproportionately affect Black Americans. According to data from the Sentencing Project, one in 13 Black Americans have lost the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, compared to one in 40 non-Black Americans.

“The reason I champion [this legislation] is because people who are incarcerated still want to be a part of the community and want to stay connected to their community,” says D.C. Councilmember-At-Large Robert C. White Jr., who’s been a leader in pushing the legislation forward, told Supermajority News. “I also think that restoring voting for those who are incarcerated is particularly important because this has been a tool that has disenfranchised people of color for decades now. It’s a tool that has grown out of Jim Crow, and from efforts to keep lower income people outside of our democracy.” 

Supermajority News asked on-the-ground experts about the history of these laws and how D.C.’s latest move might shape the conversation surrounding voting rights in the future. 

Why do these laws disproportionately affect people of color, specifically the Black community?

“What we saw is that historically, a handful of states in the 1800s took away the right to vote from incarcerated people because they wanted to secure the right to vote especially for white men,” White explains. “But then the 15th amendment began to get traction and got passed by Congress. You saw a slew of states join those ranks to disenfranchise African Americans. They were doing this intentionally to keep Black people out of the voting booth. And unfortunately, even though we have done away with most Jim Crow laws over the years, disenfranchising incarcerated people is one of the tools that has remained.”

What’s the significance of D.C. taking this step? 

Soffiyah Elijah, executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice which works to end human rights violations inside prisons and end mass criminalization, has seen firsthand how incarcerated individuals are often disregarded and mistreated. Restoring their voting rights is a key step toward recentering their humanity. With D.C. being the first jurisdiction to lead the way, it’s creating a path forward for other parts of the country to follow. 

“It’s very important for everyone who is a citizen of this country to be able to exercise their right to vote,” Elijah says. “Their involvement with the justice system shouldn’t have any impact on the exercise of that citizenship right. Are you aware that in Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico people who are incarcerated are able to vote? They’re voting and the sky hasn’t fallen. We need the right to vote to be restored to everyone.” 

How will this measure affect women and their families? 

As the number of incarcerated women continues to steadily increase, so does that population’s disenfranchisement within the political system. Without the right to vote, they’re unable to have a say in who makes critical decisions about the communities that they’re still very much connected to, even when they’re serving a sentence. 

“[Many] women were living with children and their families prior to their most recent incarceration,” says Bahiyyah Muhammad, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Howard University, who teaches in prisons through her innovative “Policing Inside Out” course. 

“That means these individuals are directly connected to their families and children, and they’re directly involved in the community,” Muhammad says. “For incarcerated women to be empowered to vote, it sends a sense of liberation and allows them to understand that not only do their voices matter, but they are needed.” 

It also shifts the ability of individuals in incarceration to reassess what their involvement with the political process means. 

“If you’re voting and it has an effect on the school your child goes to during incarceration, it allows you to begin to parent from a distance,” Muhammad explains. “Because now not only does casting this vote matter, but you’re also gaining a better understanding of those individuals who are running. You have a better understanding of the issues — it allows you to have political engagement.” 

What’s the argument against restoring voting rights for incarcerated people? 

Muhammad, who teaches inside carceral spaces, says that she’s “seen and heard a lot over the years” from those who oppose restoring voting rights. Often, she says, these opposers argue that incarcerated people aren’t educated, or that since they’re being punished for criminal activity, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote. 

“I’ve heard, ‘Those individuals who are incarcerated are illiterate. They’re not reading. They’re not writing. They’re not following what’s going on. They have no clue.’ This is definitely a myth that has to be dispelled,” Muhammad says. “These are humans — regardless if they’re serving sentences — that ought to be able to vote. We have to be reminded that in an orange jumpsuit or not, we’re talking about people who are loved in their communities and who should be able to make those decisions on who’s going to be president of the United States and mayor of the District.”

How could restoring these rights nationwide influence future election outcomes?

While the development in D.C. is happening via emergency legislation (which could expire in 90 days unless the city council moves to make the measure permanent), Councilmember White is optimistic that will happen, and that the legislation will serve as a trailblazer for similar bills across the country. 

“We fully anticipate the permanent legislation will pass pretty soon after the council returns from recess, and we also have tools to expand our emergency legislation if there are any delays with the permanent legislation,” White shares. “Right now, no one is accountable to incarcerated people, but by restoring their right to vote, you will see more officials pay attention to that constituency and to the needs of that constituency. And I think the benefits are going to be seen across the country.”