New Bill Aims To Make Sure Incarcerated People Know And Can Use Their Voting Rights

“It’s real basic constitutional rights 101,” said Rep. Gwen Moore, the legislation’s sponsor.

A new bill in Congress aims to ensure incarcerated people can better understand their voting rights and use them if they are indeed eligible to cast a ballot.

If you have a felony conviction, figuring out whether or not you can vote once you’re released from prison can be a nightmare. The rules vary widely from state to state and voting when you’re ineligible, even if it’s just a mistake, can land you back in prison. The most recent estimate, from 2010, shows around 19 million people in the United States have felony convictions. Thirteen million of those people are likely eligible to vote, Christopher Uggen, the author of Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy, told HuffPost earlier this year.

Many of the 700,000 people detained in jails across the country also don’t realize they are likely eligible to vote and that the availability of voter education and registration materials can be at the discretion of local sheriffs and other correction officials.

The new legislation, introduced by Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) last week, seeks to combat that confusion by amending federal law to require the Bureau of Prisons to include voting restoration and voter registration as part of its planning program preparing inmates for re-entry into society. The bill would also clarify that the attorney general can award grants to prisons, jails, juvenile facilities and re-entry courts for voter registration and restoration programs. Additionally, the legislation would add a new metric to evaluate how correctional institutions use federal grant money, evaluating them on how well they use the money they receive to inform people about their voting rights.

The bill also specifically authorizes the attorney general to award grants to facilities to establish polling places in jails, provide absentee ballots to detained persons and provide voter education information.

In an interview, Moore pointed to a 2004 study that showed a negative correlation between voting and re-arrest among former felons. The authors of the study noted that voting itself wasn’t what caused the lack of recidivism, but said the act of casting a ballot was a manifestation of a desire to participate in society.

“It’s a safety issue,” Moore said. “This is like a real, easy thing to do. This is a lot easier than some of the other calisthenics that we go through in the corrections system, up to and including incarcerating people for long periods of time. This is very low hanging fruit in terms of safety.”

The bill could have a particular impact on people under 18 who are arrested and then become eligible to vote while they are incarcerated, said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice, which supports the legislation.
“We know that too many children, particularly those charged as adults, become eligible voters while pending trial,” she said in a statement. “In addition, thousands return home from a period of incarceration with no history of voting. Too often, these youth come from communities that are disenfranchised and grossly over-represented in prison.”

Moore’s bill, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Yvette Clarke (N.Y.), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.), comes as Democrats have pledged to make voting rights a top priority once they formally assume control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January.

While the GOP-controlled Senate is unlikely to advance any of the Democratic-backed measures, Moore said it was still worth pushing for them.

“You don’t get to not push things because they might not take it,” she said.

“Unless and until people are convicted, they’re presumed to be innocent. It’s real basic constitutional rights 101.”