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D.C. considers restoring voting rights to prisoners with felony convictions

The issue will be the subject of a D.C. Council hearing Thursday

A prison hallway, filled with cells and bars. Getty Images/Image Source

Original post, October 9:

The District would allow residents who are incarcerated and have felony convictions to vote in local and federal elections under legislation set to receive a public hearing Thursday. The “Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019” was unanimously proposed by the D.C. Council in June. As drafted, it would go into effect in January 2021, ahead of the 2022 D.C. elections.

The bill could benefit thousands of District residents who are held in federal prisons outside of the city. (D.C. has a jail but no prisons, and two-thirds of residents serving sentences for felony records are incarcerated outside of the region, according to NBC4.) Authored by At-Large Councilmember Robert White, the proposal would have the District join the ranks of Maine and Vermont, which already let all prisoners vote. White says he sees expanding the franchise as a matter of civil rights and a way to ensure accountability for prison conditions. He has also suggested it would help correct laws that disproportionately affect black people.

“Currently, non-incarcerated District residents with criminal records are fully enfranchised, as well as residents currently incarcerated for misdemeanors or those incarcerated in the District and awaiting trial for a felony offense,” explains a notice for the October 10 hearing. “District residents are not considered incarcerated if they have completed a court-ordered sentence of confinement and subsequently reside in a halfway house or other community supervision center, or if they are otherwise on court-ordered supervision.” The bill would update a 1955 law by striking the restriction on prisoners who have felony convictions and creating reporting requirements about its implementation for the D.C. Board of Elections.

The District’s attorney general, Karl Racine, has also expressed support for the legislation. The Council’s judiciary committee is scheduled to begin the hearing at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

Update, October 10:

The judiciary committee will resume the hearing at Southeast’s RISE Demonstration Center October 29 at 7 p.m., committee chair Charles Allen said Thursday. About four dozen public witnesses, including residents, activists, and nonprofit leaders, have signed up to testify for Thursday’s hearing. Testimony is also expected from D.C. election and public safety officials.