On Tuesday, the DC Council voted to make DC the first US jurisdiction to restore voting rights to residents incarcerated with felony convictions. The Restore the Vote Act, which undoes the Jim Crow era disenfranchisement of Black Americans, was approved as part of a larger policing and justice reform bill. DC now joins Maine and Vermont, which never stripped the vote from incarcerated residents.
Last year, the Commission on Re-Entry and Returning Citizens Affairs told me that the right to vote for incarcerated residents was their top priority. I took the charge seriously, but I wasn’t optimistic we could get it passed into law. As I researched the history of voting rights, the first question I asked was, ‘When did incarcerated residents actually lose their right to vote?’ What I found was disturbing. Many states and the District of Columbia took the right to vote away from incarcerated residents during the Jim Crow era, along with other policies aimed at criminalizing Black lives and disenfranchising Black voters, like harsh prison sentences, poll taxes, and literacy tests.
As I discussed my research with my Council colleagues, each of them understood the importance of re-enfranchising residents who never should have lost their right to vote. We also realized that voting is the most basic right of a democracy and that our city and our country are better if all our residents can participate in our governance and hold elected officials accountable on important issues like mass incarceration and prison abuse.
While Maine and Vermont never took the right to vote from incarcerated residents, no jurisdiction has fully restored the fundamental right to vote. When the mayor signs this bill, DC will be the first, but given the nation’s renewed focus on racial equity, I know others will follow. Today, I am so grateful to the returning citizens who led on this milestone in American democracy.