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D.C. Council, Advocates Discuss Federal Inmate Voting Rights

Supporters of the Restore the Vote Amendment Act describe the legislation as a pivotal step in reversing systemic inequality, but they also quick to add the bill is not the end all be all in ending a policy that has marginalized the District’s African-American population for more than 50 years.

Tyrone Walker, a returning citizen, was one of more than 40 public witnesses who testified recently last week, recounting his political maturity as an inmate in the early 2000s. His intellectual growth, he said, turned into sorrow once he and fellow inmates realized that they couldn’t add their vote in the ballot box.

“We always talked about current events. That gave us a different mind frame from the criminal activities we partook in as youth,” Walker, an associate at the Justice Policy Institute in Northwest, told D.C. Council members Robert White (D- At large) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) during the first round of testimonies on Thursday, Oct. 10.

That morning, Walker, who sat alongside former D.C. Council member Arrington Dixon, Katie Gotsch of the Sentencing Project, and Rodney McKenzie of the social justice nonprofit Demos, likened that type of disenfranchisement to a generational curse, passed along from his once-incarcerated parents to him, and now to his offspring.

“We saw what [different officials] were doing, and then we said ‘I wish I could vote,’ and realized we never voted,” Walker continued. “While incarcerated, I could’ve kept my family engaged. To this day, I don’t know if my daughters vote. [They’ve been engaged], but that’s not going to change [anything] in a blink of an eye.”

If the D.C. Council passes the Restore the Vote Amendment Act, the District will join Maine, Vermont, and Puerto Rico as states and territories in the United States that grant incarcerated people with felonies the right to vote in elections.

This milestone would also count among the latest in longtime efforts to keep returning citizens and their incarcerated counterparts connected to the outside world. During the 2018 midterm elections, 127 D.C. Jail inmates awaiting trial for misdemeanors cast their votes thanks to a law that allowed them to do so. Earlier this year, Council member Allen introduced polarizing legislation that secures early release for inmates who have served at least 15 years of a sentence for violent crimes committed as minors.

Last week’s hearing, hosted by the D.C. Council Committee of the Judiciary and Public Safety, chaired by Council member Allen, preceded another public meeting scheduled for the evening of Oct. 29 at THEARC in Southeast. In moving the Restore the Vote Amendment Act through the legislative process, D.C. Council member Robert White said he wanted those most affected and their families to have a say.

“Actually, and historically I know why we need to pass this bill. What I’m hoping to hear is how [not having a vote] has affected incarcerated D.C. residents and their families, and what they want for the legislation,” At-large Council member White said. “I think that’s important for the council to understand so that we can have the information we need. The District can be a model for the country not to disenfranchise incarcerated residents.”

Throughout much of Thursday morning and early afternoon, activists and members of the returning citizens’ community weighed in on the discussion about voting rights for D.C. inmates. One particular concern that arose early in the proceedings involved the potential of gerrymandering and other tools used to dilute the power of a strong voting bloc. Other public witnesses questioned the Board of Elections’ efficacy in providing essential information to incarcerated voters.

In her appeal to Council members White and Allen, Ella Hankins, a student at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest and the youngest public witness, shed light on the effects of mass incarceration on inmates’ children.

Her testimony was an excerpt of a persuasive essay she wrote in support of inmate voting rights for an English class last year.

“The right to vote allows inmates to feel more connected to the outside world. A large sum of them have children under the age of 18,” Ella said.

“They may not be able to pick up their child or say, ‘Good night,’ but they could make sure parks are lit and schools are safer. They can vote for officials who will take care of [those issues]. They need to be reassured. This connection will make inmates feel less alienated.”

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