The Fight for People in Prison to Vote Reaches Congress

An amendment to end felony disenfranchisement failed in the House of Representatives. But the measure shows how far the fight has come in a short number of years.

Jerry Iannelli | March 2, 2021

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

An amendment to end felony disenfranchisement failed in the House of Representatives. But the measure shows how far the fight has come in a short number of years.

Earlier today, a monumental vote occurred quietly in the U.S. House of Representatives. At the moment, the House is considering H.R. 1, or the For the People Act, a package of voting-rights proposals, including a massive expansion of automatic voter-registration and the automatic restoration of voting rights for people once they exit prison. If enacted, the bill will be the largest expansion of voting rights in America since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In response, Representatives Cori Bush of Missouri and Mondaire Jones of New York, who were both elected to the House last year, proposed an amendment to H.R. 1 that would have allowed those convicted of felonies to vote from within prison. Only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., enable anyone with a felony conviction to vote from prison, and other states are debating whether to join them. Some other nations, including Canada and Israel, have national mandates that extend voting rights to incarcerated people.

The amendment failed today in a 97-328 vote. Not a single Republican voted for the measure, and it also failed among Democrats. However, activists and lawmakers fighting to expand voting rights say they’re hopeful that the vote was the beginning, rather than the end, of a national debate on voting rights for prisoners.

“This fight is not over—it’s only the beginning,” Bush told The Appeal: Political Report. “The victory was in getting those 97. Look at who those 97 are. They’re a mixture of what our caucus is made of: not just progressives, not just people who claim to be progressive, not just people who look like me.”

Indeed, the 97 supporters of the amendment included Democrats across the party’s ideological spectrum. Unsurprisingly, members of the party’s left flank, including New York Representatives Jamaal Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, signed on. But so too did some of the party’s establishment members, including influential Reps. Jerry Nadler (NY), Richard Neal (MA), and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (FL).

“This,” Bush said, “ is a national conversation now.”


Voting rights advocate and attorney Ryan Haygood, the president and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, told The Appeal: Political Report that he was floored to see a vote on full voting rights restoration reach the House floor. He said that he remembers litigating cases in an attempt to restore voting rights to the incarcerated 20 years ago, but finding resistance even among so-called liberals.

“The fact that that bill was introduced, that there was a vote, and that nearly 100 members of congress voted for it is an encouraging sign,” he said. He added: “In this moment, particularly with the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there’s a broader sense in society that our criminal justice system is infected by pervasive racism, and that you cannot connect the fundamental right to vote to a criminal justice system that is so thoroughly infected with racism. To do so, you transfer that racism from the criminal justice system into the political process.”

The vote illustrated just how quickly the political debate has shifted when it comes to voting rights for people with criminal convictions. Since the prison strikes of 2018, which made voting from prison a central demand, a wave of bills have been introduced in state legislatures that would enfranchise incarcerated people. Those efforts paid off in mid-2020, when Washington., D.C., made history by joining Maine and Vermont and adopting a law that entirely abolished felony disenfranchisement.

Until then, state lawmakers were more focused on measures to re-enfranchise some or all formerly incarcerated. In 2019 and 2020, six states adopted such reforms, restoring the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of people. Still, advocates in many states from Hawaii to Massachusetts found success in pushing legislation that would also enable people to vote from prison. And they also found federal allies such as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

“When people are convicted of a crime and are sentenced to, for example, serving time in an incarcerated setting, that is their punishment,” Jones told The Appeal: Political Report. “It should not be accompanied arbitrarily by the deprivation of a right as fundamental as the right to have a say in who represents one in office. We count people in incarcerated settings in the census for the purpose of the allocation of federal dollars.”

He added: “Every human being then deserves to be able to vote their best interest. Anything less than that is inhumane and a form of slavery. Indeed it is the ‘New Jim Crow.’”

Bush said she became passionate about the issue after growing up in St. Louis and watching friends and acquaintances lose many of their rights after a stint in prison.

“Growing up, watching friends enter the system, watching people who I knew or went to school with or who I loved being picked off and going into the system—knowing who they are, knowing who each one of them was as a person—not understanding this started when I was a teenager,” she said. “Are they less of a human because they entered prison? Do they become less human entering prison, and then more of a human when they come home? None of it makes sense to me.”

Bush said she’s confident that, if activists continue to push the issue—including by lobbying other lawmakers and speaking directly with incarcerated people—she believes this congress, or one in the near future, may fully enfranchise all Americans.

Today 119 Democratic representatives opposed the amendment, alongside all Republicans who took part in the vote. This includes two Democrats who had voted to set up disenfranchisement in Massachusetts in the first place, back when they were in that state’s legislature two decades ago.

Still, the so-called “Overton Window”—a term for what is considered acceptable to a mainstream population—has shifted so greatly that a growing number of law-enforcement officials now say they support enfranchising incarcerated people, and have even run on the issue.

In January, after Oregon state lawmakers proposed a bill that would allow the currently incarcerated to vote, Multnomah County (Portland) District Attorney Mike Schmidt testified in favor of the bill and called it a “no-brainer” last week. Election officials and prosecutors in Maine and Vermont, where people can vote from prison, have told the Political Report that the voting rights of incarcerated people are a non-issue in their states.

“Republicans have put forward over 250 bills silencing Black and brown voices,” Bush said. “They’ve made it more difficult to vote. They’ve made racist attempts to suppress our voices. That’s why this is important. We may not have made the mark we wanted to have made today, but the fact is that we are working to dismantle this unjust, Jim Crow era policy. That is work we have to continue to do.”