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DC Council Approves Voting in Prison Ahead of November Election

The DC Council approved an emergency bill July 7, 2020 that included the Restore the Vote Amendment, authorizing voting by residents incarcerated in jail or prison with a felony conviction.

The District joins just two states, Maine and Vermont, which maintain voting rights for imprisoned citizens.

The District of Columbia is first among several jurisdictions considering expanding voting rights to imprisoned citizens. In recent years, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico and New Jersey have considered similar measures.

The Restore the Vote Amendment was included in emergency policing and justice reform legislation. The DC Council intends to permanently authorize voting rights for all incarcerated District residents with a felony conviction in a future bill. While District residents sentenced to local code violations are imprisoned in the federal Bureau of Prisons, residents incarcerated in federal prisons are allowed to vote under the reform. As residents of the District of Columbia, D.C. voters can vote in local and presidential elections but do not have representation in Congress.

Now is the time to register and get your absentee ballot if you had a District address prior to imprisonment. The D.C. Board of Elections is trying to contact District residents in BOP lockups. But residents can contact them, too. The Board of Elections must receive voter registration applications submitted by mail by October 13, 2020. Absentee ballots will be sent to the registered address. Voted and mailed ballots must be postmarked or otherwise demonstrated to be sent on or before Election Day, and must be received by November 10, 2020. Residents can contact the DC Board of Elections at 1015 Half Street, SE, Suite 750, Washington, DC 20003.

Community groups, from the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs to the League of Women Voters of the District of Columbia, are helping to get the word out. Eligible voters will hear from family and friends about their eligibility to participate in the November election. D.C. residents in BOP lockups might help get the word out, too.

Expanding the franchise in D.C. is part of long tradition of challenging felony voting bans. Last year, Colorado lawmakers expanded voting rights to nearly 11,500 residents on parole. Nevada lawmakers automatically gave voting rights to 77,000 residents with a felony conviction released from prison regardless of offense type or parole or probation status. New Jersey lawmakers expanded the voting rights to 83,000 persons on felony probation and parole. The governors in Iowa and Kentucky issued executive orders restoring voting rights to most residents with a felony conviction who completed their sentence. Since 1997, 25 states have amended their felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility.

The DC Council’s authorizing of voting for residents in prison is historic. Hopefully as many as possible participate in the franchise this November.