Earlier this week, the House of Representatives began discussing broad legislation, known as the For the People Act, or HR 1, to protect and expand voting access in the face of a coordinated GOP-led onslaught against voting rights at the state level.
Given that the GOP and its putative standard-bearers who will be moving into the next election cycle have bought into “Stop the Steal” conspiracism lock, stock, and smoking barrel, and have made expanded voter suppression a core part of their strategy and their party platform, it’s vital that Congress pass voter protections as soon as possible. Without it, millions of Americans in states such as Georgia and Pennsylvania who voted in 2020 will find that, come 2022 and 2024, huge obstacles have been placed between them and the ballot box.
In this national conversation about voting rights, we must also have a discussion about the criminal justice system, since a variety of state laws passed in the mass incarceration era have denied the franchise to millions of current and former felons. The Sentencing Project estimates that, despite some re-enfranchisement victories in Florida and elsewhere over the past few years, upwards of 5 million people remain voteless because of their entanglement in the criminal justice system.
As a part of the discussion in Congress around HR 1, members briefly considered—only to rapidly set aside—an amendment that would have expanded the franchise to prisoners behind bars. Despite the fact that prisoners in Canada have twice had their right to vote upheld by the Canadian Supreme Court, and despite the fact that mass incarceration in the United States disproportionately affects minority and low-income populations, this amendment, pushed by newly elected Missouri Representative Cori Bush, was apparently a bridge too far for many Democrats.
But, while federal legislators seemed unwilling to tackle the issue of mass disenfranchisement arising from mass incarceration, at the state level, especially out west, legislators and voters aren’t so shy.
Last month, Washington state’s House approved a bill to re-enfranchise parolees and those on probation. The measure would automatically restore voting rights to roughly 20,000 residents. Unfortunately, a competing bill, introduced in the state Senate that same week, unexpectedly died on the floor after the GOP opposed it and managed to peel off some support from Democrats. There’s now roughly a one-month window for the Senate to pass the House version; if it doesn’t, that bill too will go down in flames. Given the generally progressive momentum around criminal justice reforms in Washington state these past several years—including moves to decriminalize marijuana possession and reduce maximum sentences for misdemeanor convictions to under a year so as to protect immigrants convicted of misdemeanors from deportation—it would be a travesty if this legislation fails.
This ought to be a no-brainer. After all, the West Coast has shifted far from its 1990s and early 2000s tough-on-crime stance. Oregon passed legislation allowing people to vote once they leave prison. Legislators in that state are also moving ahead with a bill that would enfranchise prisoners—which now only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., allow. Those other states never disenfranchised prisoners in the first place, so if the Oregon bill passes—which criminal justice reformers believe is likely—it will become the first state in US history to fully re-enfranchise prisoners, and thus sever voting rights from criminal justice sanctions.
Meanwhile, in California—where voters have proven remarkably sympathetic in recent election cycles to unwinding the policies and collateral damages of the tough-on crime decades—this past November voters passed an initiative that restored voting rights to parolees. They also elected a slew of progressive prosecutors committed to rethinking prosecution strategies and investigating police violence.
And in Nevada, which until recently had one of the most restrictive laws in the country preventing ex-felons from voting, in 2019 Governor Steve Sisolak signed legislation restoring the vote to roughly 77,000 ex-prisoners as well as felons convicted of a crime but not sentenced to prison.
This is the moment out west for systemic criminal justice reform. Juvenile justice systems are being reimagined, drug policies are being redesigned to emphasize public health and harm reduction, and “three strikes” laws are being used less frequently as prosecutorial tools. Voting rights are a core part of this conversation; legislators must not ignore or short-change them.