Felons in the District currently don’t have the right to vote, but if a city lawmaker has his way, that will change in a couple of years.
D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At Large) announced that he will introduce the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019 that would allow District felons, no matter where they are incarcerated, to vote in city elections.
“I remind people that there is no provision in the U.S. Constitution removing the right to vote for people who have committed felonies,” White said. “And those who have been convicted do not lose their constitutional protections. They do not lose their civil rights. They do not lose their citizenship. Why, then, would they lose their most fundamental democratic right?”
White said his bill would affect about 6,000 residents.
In 1955, the felony disenfranchisement effort became law, by way of the federal government. The District had no voting representation in the U.S. Congress at that time and three presidentially appointed commissioners managed the city.
White made the announcement June 4 in front of the John A. Wilson Building, with fellow council members Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), David Grosso (I-At Large) and Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) supporting him along with leaders of returning citizens’ groups holding white posters with #restorethevotedc in purple writing on them.
White’s bill comes along as national attention on the voting rights of the incarcerated are being debated. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential hopeful, has openly said convicted felons and felons serving time should have the right to vote. In Florida, an amendment allowing felons who have served their time to vote in the state passed by a 64 percent margin in November.
However, Republicans in the Florida state legislature and the state’s governor, Ron DeSantis (R) want felons to pay all of their fees and fines before they are allowed to vote and legislation has been making progress to do that. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2018, has denounced the GOP effort, saying the amendment ” is the law of the land” and “it is enshrined in the Florida Constitution.”
Gillum has also compared the Republicans’ actions as “an illegal poll tax.”
While the District and 48 states have laws prohibiting incarcerated residents from voting, White noted that Vermont and Maine have never passed laws disenfranchising incarcerated residents.
Presently, felons get their voting rights back when they are released from the criminal justice system. In Maryland, a felon loses their right to vote while incarcerated but regains it when released.
In Virginia, a felon has to get individual approval from the governor in order to vote in that commonwealth.
White also noted the District’s law took effect when the city was in the grips of Jim Crow segregation and pointed out that 90 percent of incarcerated felons are African American. One in 13 African Americans has lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws, compared to 1 in 56 non-Black voters, studies have shown.
White said he understands the argument of some who say controversial criminals such as the Boston Marathon bomber should not have the right to vote, but said his bill remains the right thing to do.
Trayon White supports the bill and noted that historic figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Malcolm X and former D.C. Mayor and Council member Marion S. Barry were all once returning citizens.
“There are 70,000 returning citizens in D.C. and we as leaders should give them the same rights we have,” he said.
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D) didn’t attend announcement but supports White’s efforts, saying “when people violate the law, we must hold them accountable, but we shouldn’t strip them of their rights as citizens.”
“Most countries in the world recognize that incarcerated people will eventually return to their communities and ensuring that they remain active participants with their families and community during a period of incarceration enhances the likelihood that they will not engage in wrongdoing upon release,” Racine said.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) hasn’t publicly taken a position on the bill but Brian Ferguson, the director of the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizens Affairs, said Bowser “supports the voting rights of all District citizens.”
White encouraged Allen, the chairman of the council’s Committee on the Judiciary & Public Safety, to hold a hearing on the bill before the summer recess and Allen said he will work with White to move the legislation in a timely manner.
Tony Lewis, a prominent returning citizens’ activist, said voting would mean so much to the city’s felony population.
“This gives them something that they can participate in and will help them stay connected by participating in our elections,” Lewis said.