DC to Consider Incarcerated Voting for Felons, Ballot Delivery

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The District of Columbia City Council is considering some big changes to its election laws, including authorizing voting while incarcerated (including vote-by-mail!) for felons and a Colorado-style ballot delivery system with ballots mailed to all voters. WAMU has more:

A pair of bills introduced in the D.C. Council Tuesday would expand voting options for residents, both by allowing them to cast ballots by mail and by permitting incarcerated felons to vote — a right currently offered only by Maine and Vermont.

Under a bill introduced by Council member Robert White (D-At Large), D.C. residents convicted and imprisoned for committing felonies would retain their voting rights while serving sentences. While D.C. felons automatically regain the right to vote once they leave prison, a law dating back to 1955 automatically strips that right upon conviction.

“There is no provision in the Constitution removing the right to vote for people convicted of felonies, and those who have been convicted do not lose their civil rights,” said White at a press conference on the steps of the Wilson Building on Tuesday. “They don’t lose their constitutional protections. They don’t lose their citizenship. Why then would we treat them like they’re outside of our democracy and deny them the most basic rights of democracy?”

The DC bill is part of a larger national discussion about the voting rights of people convicted of felonies and serving time – and would add vote by mail for DC prisoners in federal facilities:

The issue of voting rights for felons has flared up nationwide in recent years. Last November, voters in Florida approved a constitutional amendment that restores those rights for felons who have served their sentences. In Virginia, felons who complete their sentences can have their voting rights restored by the governor; former governor Terry McAuliffe increased the practice during his term. But an effort to make the reinstatements automatic died during this year’s legislative session

D.C. residents awaiting trial or serving short sentences for misdemeanor offenses are allowed to cast absentee ballots. White’s bill — which has already gained support from all of his Council colleagues — would similarly empower the D.C. Board of Elections to mail ballots to any of the roughly 6,000 residents serving felony sentences at federal facilities across the country.

“We need to aid in the rehabilitation of felons, and to make sure that they maintain their engagement to the extent we can, because thousands of them who are off in prisons throughout this country, far away from their families, are going to be coming back home at some point,” said Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), himself a former federal prosecutor.

The Council will also consider a proposal to move to a Colorado-style system where voters are mailed ballots and have the option to return them by mail or cast them in person:

Under a separate bill introduced by Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), D.C. voters would automatically receive their ballots in the mail 45 days before any local or federal election, and would be able to either mail them back in or drop them off at designated centers after they fill them out.

In-person voting — both early and on Election Day — would remain in place, although it would be left to the D.C. Board of Elections whether to open the usual polling precincts and early voting centers or only use a more limited set of voting locations.

At least 22 states already allow some voting to be conducted by mail, and places like Oregon, Washington state and Colorado conduct all of their elections through the postal service. Locally, only Rockville is moving towards a vote-by-mail system; it will get its first test in this November’s local elections.

Nadeau says that implementing vote-by-mail could increase voter participation in a city where fewer than half of registered voters regularly cast ballots. It also could address a related problem of voters who feel uninformed about the candidates and issues as they head to their polling place on Election Day…

D.C. has expanded early voting in recent years, and the city already allows residents to add their names to a list to receive absentee ballots for every election. But Nadeau says the goal is to continue making voting in D.C. more accessible.

“It’s just so much easier to offer this without having to request the ballot, not having to be worried your ballot won’t come on time, and have the ability to drop it off as well as mail it in,” she said.

Nadeau’s bill has gained support from six of her colleagues.

If passed (which seems likely given a majority of support for both) and signed by the mayor, these bills would represent two more big election changes for a city that’s already seen several in recent years. Should that happen, it will be interesting to see how the city messages the change to all voters – and builds a plan to assist those currently serving their sentences. Stay tuned …

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