Voting Rights & Prison

Restoration of Voting Rights

We are creating a movement among incarcerated and non-incarcerated Oregonians to shift attitudes about access to the ballot, to ensure that voters who are eligible and incarcerated have access to the ballot, civics education, and political power. Oregon is poised to become the third state to re-enfranchise people serving time for felonies, and while we’re doing that we can make interventions at county jails to minimize voter suppression of those eligible and not getting access to the ballot.

Voting Rights for Oregonian’s in Prison

There are many interlocking systems and schools of thought that perpetuate assumptions about felony disenfranchisement. The purpose of this report is to demonstrate that the right to vote should not be taken away regardless of incarceration status, while critically analyzing arguments in favor of disenfranchisement.

Written in collaboration with Anthony Richardson, an incarcerated Oregonian, and Emily McCadden from Next Up, the report provides historical context, arguments in favor, addresses myths, and cements how racism in policing has disproportionate impacts on the disenfranchisement of communities of color. 

Project Background

We got involved with this issue in 2018 after being invited to present our work to a group of incarcerated young men at MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility. Over the course of a year, we returned to the facility and strategized with incarcerated youth on how they could take part in the legislative process. We learned about the key life experiences that incarcerated young people miss out on: going to the drive-in, playing sports, and casting their first ballot when they turn voting age. We heard resoundingly that restoring the right to vote was imperative.

Fellow Alliance for Youth Action partner, Chicago Votes, has paved the way for restoration of voting rights. Their Unlocking Civics initiative has registered over 5,000 incarcerated people at the Cook County Jail and is creating the first ever polling place within a jail. They’ve created a pathway for civics education for people who are close to release, ensuring connections to civic life and a higher likelihood of voting upon reentry. We seek to apply lessons from their work in Oregon. Donate to Chicago Votes here.

THE PROBLEMS

Mass Incarceration Disproportionately Affects Communities of Color

We know that we must address the structural barriers to the disparities in Oregon, and Measure 11 mandatory minimums are a significant barrier to racial and gender justice. The work is urgent because the racial impact of Measure 11 is harming our communities in ways that will have consequences for generations. 2012 data shows that Black youth were nearly three times more likely to receive a Measure 11 charge than white youth, and the proportion of Measure 11 indictments were nearly five times greater for Black youth than their relative proportion of our population. Latino and Native American youth were also significantly overrepresented compared to white youth.

M11 Does More Harm than Good

The collateral consequences of this policy contribute to unnecessary costs to taxpayers and intergenerational disenfranchisement. We’ve learned so much about young people and the criminal legal system since this law was passed in 1994. Developments in brain science, legal developments, qualitative information about the impacts of mandatory minimums, and data analysis show that Measure 11 does not make sense for Oregon youth. Now is the time to address the problem because we armed with data, recent analysis, and an electorate that demands justice.

Lack of Access to the Ballot

Finally, there is a pervasive myth that formerly incarcerated people cannot vote. The fact that communities of color are overly represented in the criminal justice systems, also means they are being further disenfranchised and marginalized in the political system because of this misunderstanding and lack of civic education. By bringing voter education and voter registration to jails we are not only registering voters, but we are disrupting the very system that continues to harm communities of color even after people have served their sentences. In addition, we will be pushing to require that jails provide voter registration and education as people begin the re-entry process.

THE SOLUTION

Voter Registration & Education in Jails

Most people in County jails have not been convicted of a felony and therefore can vote. They just need to get registered and we can mail a ballot to them at the jail (as of the 2020 primary, ballots can be returned free of postage). Sometimes people in County jails are awaiting trial on a felony are there for several months, or longer, and they can vote because they haven’t been convicted. There are some people in County jails that have been convicted of felonies. If that is the case, they cannot vote until they are released.

Voter Registration & Education at Oregon Youth Authority

All people in State or Federal prison have been convicted of felonies. They can vote once they are no longer incarcerated. An exception is Oregon Youth Authority, where some youth are not doing time for felonies but are instead there for other convictions. Eligible youth should be registered, have access to information about voting and civics, and be able to receive and return their ballots.

Restoration of Voting Rights

Oregon is poised to become the third state to re-enfranchise people serving time for felonies. The policy solution would be a statutory amendment that only requires a simple majority in both chambers to pass. Residency, for voting purposes, would be the last known residence before incarceration. And, restoring voting rights will not create a voting block in certain districts, or impact the census, or redistricting– these are separate issues.