In July, D.C. lawmakers voted to allow felons to vote while in prison, joining only Maine and Vermont in expanding the franchise so widely to those who are incarcerated.
In the months since, District officials have learned just how difficult it is to carry out that intention.
How can people behind bars prove their identity, when they rarely have access to a traditional ID or a document like a utility bill? How will they learn about their newly granted right to vote, when they have limited access to the Internet? How can the District even find all of its prisoners to send them registration forms, when they are spread out across the country at 107 different federal prisons?
The Board of Elections has scrambled to answer those questions in time for prisoners to participate in November’s election, although the law does not mandate voting for federal prisoners until 2021.
The effort coincides with a regional and nationwide push to enable voting among those who have previously lost the right to cast a ballot because of criminal convictions, including a new agreement to distribute voter registration forms to inmates in Maryland. Ten other states across the country have expanded voting rights for currently and formerly incarcerated residents since the 2016 presidential election, adding more than 1 million people to voting rolls nationwide.
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“Their votes are critically important. Their voices so need to be heard,” said Kathy Chiron, who as president of D.C.’s League of Women Voters has conferred with several local nonprofits on getting ballots to D.C.’s newly enfranchised prisoners and informing them about the choices on the ballot. “They have interacted with so many levels of our government that the rest of us haven’t … Their voices need to be shouting out the loudest.”
Part of the challenge springs from the District’s relationship with the federal government. In most states, the majority of convicted felons are serving time in state prisons. But the District has only a local jail, which houses defendants awaiting trial and those convicted of misdemeanors or serving felony sentences of less than a year. That means D.C.’s felons can be sent to federal prisons anywhere in the country — making it hard to track them all down to send ballots.
Board of Elections Executive Director Alice Miller said the Federal Bureau of Prisons sent her a list of facilities that house D.C. residents but would not provide a list of those prisoners’ names. Miller said federal officials told her they would tell D.C.’s government about its own prisoners only for law enforcement purposes, not to enable voting.
Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Nancy Ayers confirmed that the federal agency would not provide inmates’ names to the Board of Elections, but said that the Bureau of Prisons did send emails to inmates from the District informing them of their right to vote.
Initially, Miller sent voter registration forms to the wardens of those 107 prisons, asking them to distribute the forms to any inmate who is from the District and to make announcements within the prison about D.C.’s new law. Chiron said that nonprofits working with D.C. prisoners also contacted prison librarians, hoping they could spread the word about the chance to register to vote.
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Council member Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), who spearheaded the legislation allowing incarcerated residents to vote, said that thanks to the nonprofit groups’ information on D.C. prisoners, the Board of Elections was eventually able to directly mail registration forms to a large majority of the approximately 2,400 D.C. residents currently housed in federal prisons.
Charles Thornton, who was formerly incarcerated and now works for the District’s Office of Human Rights, said that the D.C. Corrections Information Council, an independent monitoring body that he helps lead, has received inquiries from prisoners who have heard that they can now vote and have questions about how.
But those questions, which to Thornton are a promising sign that the word is getting out, have come from only eight of the 107 facilities. “I want to hear from every institution that received the registration,” he said, adding that he sees the frustrating process as an unfortunate byproduct of the District’s as-yet-unsuccessful quest for statehood.
“We have individuals in a federal system that have been extended liberty,” Thornton said. “And we’re fighting the federal system so that liberty can be exercised.”
Nicholas Jacobs, a spokesman for the elections board, said any inmate who has been in the D.C. jail for at least 30 days can register to vote using forms distributed by correctional officers without further proof of identification. Some federal inmates who have records in D.C. systems will be able to register just by providing their Social Security numbers; others may require additional forms of ID.
About 200 jail inmates and 200 federal inmates have registered this fall, he said.
Inmates of more than 30 days can use the jail’s address as their address when registering to vote, which is what Ivan Potts, 34, did when a correctional officer gave him a registration form about three weeks ago.
“They come around with the forms, trying to get us to vote,” Potts said in a phone interview from the jail, where he is awaiting trial on a federal drug charge. Potts is from Baltimore and says that most of the men in his unit are from Maryland but that nobody informed them that if they previously registered in Maryland, like Potts did, they should have received Maryland absentee ballots as pretrial inmates. “I believe our vote counts while we’re in here,” he said.
Advocates worry that inmates’ voting can be stymied in a number of ways, from confusion about what documents they need to register, to rules prohibiting some from sealing their own envelopes before sending mail from prison.
“I think the Board of Elections was handed an extremely difficult project to resolve between now and November,” said Jonathan M. Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, which has been working on the issue. “The clock is running. It is my hope that we’ll be able to get as many prisoners registered to vote as possible … but the barriers to achieving that objective are large.”
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In Maryland, felons are not allowed to vote while serving their sentences, but inmates awaiting trial or those convicted of misdemeanors can. After intense pressure, led by the Baltimore nonprofit Out for Justice, the state Board of Elections agreed last month to distribute registration forms and applications for mail-in ballots to qualifying inmates.
“This is a serious racial justice issue,” said Dana Vickers Shelley, executive director of the ACLU of Maryland, noting that while 30 percent of Maryland residents are Black, nearly 70 percent of Marylanders who have been in prison are Black. “By not allowing voting inside [prisons], the government is continuing to attempt to weaken the power of Black people,” Shelley said.
In 2016, the Democratic majority in the General Assembly won a hard-fought battle against Gov. Larry Hogan (R) to enact legislation that restored the right to vote to tens of thousands of former prisoners still on parole or probation. Hogan vetoed the bill, arguing that only a “tiny, radical minority” of Maryland residents supported the measure, and wrongly predicted that its enactment — after a veto override — would result in Democrats losing their legislative seats.
Tyrone Walker, 45, an ex-offender, testified last year for the District’s new law that allows felons to vote in prison. Walker works for the Justice Policy Institute.
(Justice Policy Institute)
Tyrone Walker, 45, an ex-offender, testified last year for the District’s new law that allows felons to vote in prison. Walker works for the Justice Policy Institute. (Justice Policy Institute) (Justice Policy Institute)
Sen. Cory V. McCray (D-Baltimore City), who championed the bill, said the push across Maryland and the country is part of a continued effort to expand the vote for marginalized communities. “There were always barriers put in place to deny Black folks the opportunity to vote,” McCray said.
Nicole D. Porter, the director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based nonprofit criminal justice think tank, said modern felony disenfranchisement is rooted in a tradition of medieval Europe, known as “civil death.” Early colonists brought the practice to the United States.
A report by the Brennan Center for Justice says that “the United States stands alone among modern democracies” in revoking voting rights from millions of citizens on the basis of criminal convictions. As voting rights expanded to Black men after the Civil War, the report said, many states — particularly in the South — toughened criminal laws to imprison formerly enslaved people, and passed new laws disenfranchising those who had been convicted.
The report found that one in every 13 Black citizens of voting age cannot vote, a rate more than four times that of other Americans.
For decades, District resident Tyrone Walker was one of them. Now an employee of the Justice Policy Institute, Walker served 25 years in prison for murder. He testified in favor of the District’s new law, which would have allowed him to vote while he was behind bars.
“It means a whole lot to be able to cast your ballot. It’s your voice,” he said.
Two years ago, after he completed his sentence, Walker, 45, voted for the first time. His parents, who were both felons, had never voted.