With less than five weeks to Election Day and more than two months after the District of Columbia became the first jurisdiction to restore voting from behind bars, the D.C. Board of Elections has distributed voter registration applications to all 2,400 residents serving felony sentences in federal prisons.
The BOE has received more than 300 registration forms so far, according to board Executive Director Alice Miller.
While residents serving felony sentences were asked to return their voter registration applications by this week to avoid delays, they can continue to return their applications until the voter registration deadline of Oct. 13, Miller said.
Mail-in ballots will be distributed to these individuals starting next week and must be postmarked by Nov. 3.
The applications were sent out at the end of August with pamphlets that provided more information on inmates’ newly-restored rights, along with pre-paid return envelopes, according to Miller.
She also said that the BOE has asked wardens of federal prisons to distribute the ballots directly to the District residents, a process that is being overseen by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
The emergency 90-day legislation passed unanimously by the D.C. Council in July did not require the board to send ballots until 2021 to “give the Board of Elections (a) realistic amount of time to execute something that’s very complicated,” Councilmember Robert White, who introduced the bill last year, said in an interview with Capital News Service.
“But to my surprise and pleasure, the Board of Elections has been able to work very quickly and seamlessly with…the Bureau of Prisons to get this done” for the 2020 election, White said.
“We just want to try to do the best we can do since the law is in place,” Miller said. “We want to do whatever we can to have these voters have their rights restored.”
With this legislation, the District joins Maine and Vermont in allowing residents to exercise their voting rights in prison. The two states never took this right away, but the District had previously restored voting rights once inmates were out of prison, similar to its neighbor Maryland and 16 other states, according to The Sentencing Project.
Thirty-one states have various requirements former inmates must meet before voting restrictions can be lifted, including the completion of parole and probation. Some of these states, including Alabama and Delaware, may not allow those convicted of certain felonies, including murder and sexual offenses, to have their rights restored.
In other states, such as in Virginia, the governor must grant individuals the right to vote again.
Although the District is fighting for statehood, with the House passing a legislation in the summer to make it the 51st state, the current federal jurisdiction over the city means it can only pass and renew temporary laws. Those laws do not take permanent effect until after a congressional review process, White explained.
The legislation passed during the summer was set to expire on Oct. 19, but the council voted unanimously on Sept. 22 to renew and extend it. It now requires a final, expected sign-off by Mayor Muriel Bowser before it can take effect for another 90 days.
White said he was surprised when he had “the full support of the entire council” on this legislation, which he had been asked by formerly incarcerated residents to take on.
“I thought it would be a much steeper climb to get all the council members on board,” he said. “But as I approached them, I approached them with the history of prisoner disenfranchisement and the reasons why it was only appropriate in a democratic country that incarcerated felons be able to vote. And they got it.”
But White conceded that there was pushback from some community members that believed the loss of voting rights is part of the punishment for a crime, although he stressed that they were “by far a minority of people,” and have since “converted their opinion.”
“My argument is that punishment is punishment and the rights in a democracy are the rights in a democracy,” White said. “When you are incarcerated, you don’t lose most of your rights…so you should not, when incarcerated, lose the most fundamental right of a democracy — the right to vote.”
For District residents awaiting trial or serving non-felony sentences, the board had organized in-person absentee voting for many years. But due to COVID, absentee voting will be only by mail for those individuals for the upcoming election.
Plans to open two polling stations at the District jail have also been dropped in light of the pandemic and growing safety concerns.
Capital News Service Washington reporter Luciana Perez Uribe contributed to this story.