Lawmakers will consider extending the right to vote to people with felony convictions who are currently serving their sentences.
PORTLAND, Ore. – A new bill seeks to overturn decades of disenfranchisement of incarcerated Oregonians which disproportionately silences the voices of Black and Indigenous people. House Bill 2366/Senate Bill 571 restores the right to vote to citizens currently serving prison sentences for felony convictions.
Denying people in prison the vote dates to the founding of the United States and even beyond since it was a practice brought by settler colonialists from Europe. Many groups who were originally excluded from voting such as women, Black people, illiterate people, and poor people can now vote. But the bar to people with felony convictions who are incarcerated voting remains. Oregon’s law preventing people in prison from voting dates to the 1850s, when the state constitution was created with the clear intention of creating a state for white people with exclusionary laws against Black, Asian, and Native people.
Oregonians with felony convictions can vote so long as they are not currently in prison. People in Oregon county jails who have not been convicted of a felony, or are awaiting trial for a felony, are permitted to vote. Two states – Maine and Vermont – plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico already allow incarcerated people convicted of felonies to vote.
“Oregon is a leader in expanding and protecting the right to vote,” said Samantha Gladu, Executive Director, Next Up Action Fund. “At a time when Oregonians are demanding racial justice, addressing the unequal burden of felony disenfranchisement of incarcerated people on Black and Indigenous communities is crucial. Passing this bill is a necessary step to dismantling racist laws and practices.”
Although the practice of denying voting rights to people in prison is widespread in the US, it has little basis beyond a historical desire to silence the voices of the incarcerated. There is no safety or security risk in allowing incarcerated people to vote. In fact, permitting Oregonians in prison to vote could help restore and protect their connection to their communities, feeling part of the wider society to which almost all of them will one day return. Strengthening incarcerated people’s connections to their communities outside prison is well established as tending to reduce reoffending rates after incarceration.
“Those who argue in favor of denying voting rights to prisoners typically rely on similar arguments that were previously used to justify denying voting rights to women, people who did not own property and minority communities,” said Anthony Richardson, who is currently incarcerated in Oregon and is the co-author of a forthcoming report on voting rights for people in prison. “Removing the right to vote undermines citizenship. Prison is about the loss of liberty, not the loss of citizenship.”
“This bill is important to me for three reasons,” said Representative Andrea Salinas, one of the chief sponsors of HB 2366. “First, it reimagines our corrections system where incarcerated people can participate in the laws that affect them right now. Second, it restores hope to those who may not see a future for themselves. And third, it reconnects them to their community in a meaningful way through participation in the democratic process.”
If passed, House Bill 2366/Senate Bill 571 would not allow Oregonians in prison to hold public office or become a candidate for public office. People would be able to register to vote in the Oregon county in which they were last resident before entering prison, rather than where the prison they live in is located.