Volunteers Help Prisoners Vote at D.C. Jail
For most prisoners in jail awaiting trial, voting is an afterthought. But volunteers at the District of Columbia jail manned the polls for the first two days of early voting in October 2012 and instructed prisoners on how to fill out ballots.
After recording prisoners’ names and precincts, the volunteers flipped through stacks of absentee ballots and explained how to darken the bubbles to record their votes.
“Remember to vote both sides of the ballot,” advised poll worker Arlin Budoo. Nearby sat a stack of “I Voted” stickers.
There are an estimated 700,000 people across the country sitting in jail pending trial or serving time for misdemeanors, all of whom can vote, provided – in most states – that they haven’t been disenfranchised by a past felony conviction. The problem, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, is that most jails aren’t doing what volunteers in Washington, D.C. do to ensure that eligible prisoners vote.
“In the vast majority of jails there’s absolutely nothing being done to make that happen,” he said.
The Sentencing Project reported that about 2.5% of the total U.S. voting age population – one of every 40 adults – was disenfranchised in 48 states as of December 2010 due to a current or previous felony conviction. That amounts to around 5.8 million people nationwide.
In February 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr. focused national attention on voting rights for ex-offenders by framing it as a civil rights issue. Holder urged states that have not relaxed their disenfranchisement laws to grant voting rights to former prisoners to do so.
The movement has gained momentum around the nation, with nearly two dozen states loosening their voting rights statutes over the past 15 years.
Just last year in Virginia, then-Governor Robert F. McDonnell did away with the requirement that qualified non-violent felons had to apply for restoration of their voting rights. In April 2014, current Governor Terry McAuliffe announced he would automatically restore voting rights to offenders who had completed their sentences for violent drug-related crimes, and reduce the waiting period for other violent felonies from five years to three years (provided that all court-ordered costs, fines and restitution had been paid).
The District of Columbia has made increasing efforts to help jail prisoners vote; for many decades, the District has been ahead of the states in relaxing Reconstruction-era prohibitions that exempt most current and former prisoners from the political franchise.
As a result, more types of offenders can vote in the District of Columbia than almost anywhere else, including parolees, released prisoners on probation and those who are out on bond or wearing electronic monitoring devices. Offenders in jail who are otherwise eligible can also vote; hundreds of ballots were delivered to the D.C. Jail for the last mayoral primary in April 2014.
In Washington, it’s not just ex-offenders who are pushing the issue but churches, new residents to the capital city and a coalition of organizations that view voting rights for former prisoners as a social-justice priority.
A 2008 survey indicated that 60,000 D.C. residents had a criminal record, according to Charles Thornton, director of the city’s newly-renamed Office on Returning Citizen Affairs. He noted that figure is certainly higher now, and estimated that one in seven adults, roughly 75,000 Washington, D.C. residents, have criminal records.
Thornton, who himself served time in the 1980s on federal drug charges, said as many as 8,000 D.C. residents are released every year from the city’s jail and federal prisons combined. In addition, court records indicate that approximately 22,000 residents are under some form of correctional supervision, including probation.
An estimated 10,000 ex-offenders in D.C. were registered to vote prior to the 2008 presidential election, and according to Courtney Stewart, chairman of the Reentry Network for Returning Citizens, which organizes voter registration drives in the District, nearly 4,000 more registered before the city’s 2010 mayoral election.
“It’s a growing force,” stated city Councilman Marion Barry, a former Washington, D.C. mayor who is also a well-known ex-offender, having served six months in federal prison for possession of crack cocaine. In the 2010 election, nearly 450 prisoners at the D.C. Jail voted by absentee ballot; in the 2012 general election, 174 prisoners at the jail and Correctional Treatment Facility in D.C. voted.
“We need more returning citizens to know they can vote,” Councilman Barry said, “and more to get out and vote.”
Sources: USA Today, www.washingtonpost.com, www.thinkprogress.org, www.doc.dc.gov, www.felonvoting.procon.org
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