Congress Tackles Restoring Voting Rights to Felons, Makes Remarkable Progress
by Dale Chappell
More and more states across the country have been coming around and allowing those with felony records to vote, some even allowing prisoners to vote. Now Congress has jumped on-board, the House of Representatives passing a bill in March that would restore voting rights to those who have completed their prison sentences. The bill moves to the Senate for a vote.
Until recently, there wasn’t much talk about allowing those with felony records to vote. Sure, it was mentioned here and there, but nobody took it seriously. There were always those outlier states, like Maine and Vermont, that let everyone vote, even prisoners. But with so few electoral votes and being underrepresented in Congress, those two states didn’t matter much -- until others joined them: In 2020, Washington, D.C., passed a law allowing felons to vote, even from prison, and in the last two years six states restored voting rights to hundreds of thousands of felons.
Those in Congress saw the trend and one of the first items on the agenda was H.R. 1, called the “For the People Act.” It’s a package of voting-rights proposals, including letting people vote after they’ve been released from prison. The U.S., though, would hardly be the first country to allow felons to vote; Canada and Israel already have such mandates that give all prisoners the right to vote.
“When people are convicted of a crime and are sentenced to, for example, serving time in an incarcerated setting, that is their punishment,” Rep. Mondaire Jones of New York said. “It should not be accompanied arbitrarily by the deprivation of a right as fundamental as the right to have a way in who represents one in office. We count people in incarcerated setting in the census for the purpose of the allocation of federal dollars.”
Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri echoed Jones’ sentiment. “Growing up, watching friends enter the system, watching people who I knew or went to school with or who I loved being picked off and going into the system -- knowing who they are, knowing each one of them was as a person -- not understanding this started when I was a teenager,” she said. “Are they less of a human because they entered prison? Do they become less human entering prison, and then more of a human when they come home? None of it makes sense to me.” “Republicans have put forward over 250 bills silencing Black and brown voices,” she continued. “They’ve made racist attempts to suppress our voices. That’s why this is important. We may not have made the mark we wanted to have made today, but the fact is that we are working to dismantle this unjust, Jim Crow era policy. That is work we have to continue to do.”
The representatives proposed an amendment to the For the People Act that would have allowed prisoners across the country to vote. It lost 92 to 328. But they’re still excited by the outcome. If activists continue to push the issue, they say, Congress could enable prisoners to vote in the near future.
“The fight is not over -- it’s only the beginning,” Bush told The Appeal. “The victory was in getting those 97. Look at who those 97 are. They’re a mixture of what our caucus is made of: not just progressives, not just people who claim to be progressive, not just people who look like me.”
“The fact that the bill was introduced, that there was a vote, and that nearly 100 members of Congress voted for it is an encouraging sign,” Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told The Appeal. “In this moment, particularly with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there’s a broader sense in society that our criminal justice system is infected by pervasive racism, and that you cannot connect the fundamental right to vote to a criminal justice system that is so thoroughly infected with racism.”
How long will society be open to removing the anti-voting shackles from prisoners and felons? Hopefully long enough for Congress to make voting rights for every citizen the national standard.
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