The D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety’s most recent hearing about restoring voting rights for incarcerated District residents took place in the heart of Congress Heights, a Southeast neighborhood reeling from the generational effects of mass incarceration.
Nearly two dozen people testified at the RISE Demonstration Center as an audience of returning citizens, elected officials and community leaders listened intently. In their public support of the Restore the Vote Amendment Act, some public witnesses, like Eric Weaver, gave thought to the power of a well-informed, local and national inmate voting bloc.
“You could take your family to the polls from the inside,” Weaver, chair of the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, told Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Robert White (D-At large) and Trayon White (D-Ward 8) on Monday night.
“They will keep up with the elections and want information about candidates,” Weaver continued. “This will change the mindset of people, where they will feel like they’re part [of society]. We’re talking about thousands of people who can make change and have a lasting impact on any of the elections.”
Weaver counted among a bevy of voices from the Ward 8 community stressing the importance of securing federal inmate voting rights. Others sharing the witness table with him included State Board of Education Vice President Markus Batchelor and Zachary Hoffman. Later, the Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety also heard from Ambrose Lane of the Health Alliance Network, Robin McKinney and Kymone Freeman of We Act Radio, among others.
The public hearing came weeks after the Committee convened an initial hearing which addressed the Restore the Vote Amendment Act. Though that gathering attracted more than 40 public witnesses, Council member Robert White, who introduced the bill in June with the full support of his council colleagues, expressed a desire to hear from those unable to make the trek to the Wilson Building during daytime work hours.
If the Restore the Vote Amendment Act passes, the District will join Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico as states and territories that grant incarcerated people with felonies the right to vote in elections. The legislation counts among a handful introduced within the last year to ease the voting process for D.C. residents.
It also follows previous efforts to keep returning citizens and their incarcerated counterparts connected to the outside world. Those strides have manifested in privileges that the District’s marginalized and maligned have come to enjoy.
Last November, 127 D.C. Jail inmates awaiting trial for misdemeanors cast their votes during the midterm elections thanks to a law that allowed them that opportunity. 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.
In speaking about the Restore the Vote Amendment Act, Council member Trayon White mentioned a slew of returning citizens in the room who’ve served their communities in various capacities upon their release from federal custody. He said that incarcerated District residents, along with several others across the U.S. should receive a chance to make a similar impact while serving time.
“This is part of a growing effort to restore voting rights to people across the country. We say the United States is the land of the free, yet we incarcerate more people than any other place in the world,” he said.
“[In this room] are a few of the individuals who not only had a misstep in life, but came back and made tremendous accomplishments in our community. I not only support this bill but the movement to restore voting rights across the country.”