WASHINGTON (AP) — Congressional Democrats have introduced legislation that would allow people convicted of a felony to vote in federal elections, a proposal that if enacted could restore the voting rights of millions of people in U.S. elections.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Sen. Peter Welch of Vermont submitted the legislation, named the Inclusive Democracy Act, on Tuesday which would guarantee the right to vote in federal elections for all citizens regardless of their criminal record.
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In a statement, Pressley said the legislation was necessary due to policies and court rulings that “continue to disenfranchise voters from all walks of life — including by gutting the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, cuts to early voting, and more.” Welch called the bill necessary due to “antiquated state felony disenfranchisement laws.”
In late 2022, approximately 4.6 million people were unable to vote due to a felony conviction, according to a study by the Sentencing Project, a nonpartisan research group. The same study found that Black and Hispanic citizens are disproportionately likely to be disenfranchised due to felony convictions.
“With Republicans and the Supreme Court stopping at nothing to undermine voting rights and exclude Black and brown folks from participating in our democracy, we must protect and expand access to the ballot box — including for incarcerated citizens,” Pressley said.
The legislation would also require incarcerated people to be educated on their voting rights and offered systems and resources for how to register to vote. The bill also requires means of vote by mail for incarcerated people.
States and territories currently determine a citizen’s voting eligibility for all levels of government. The proposed bill would not change states’ ability to expand or restrict access for state or local elections.
The legislation stands long odds of being passed by the Republican-controlled House. In 2021, all Republicans and a majority of Democrats voted against an amendment to Democrats’ then-flagship voting rights reform bill that would have permitted people with felony convictions to vote. The bill later passed the House but stalled in the Senate.
“As someone whose family has been personally impacted by mass incarceration, I know how important it is for people to maintain ties to their community, including by voting,” Pressley said.
Voting rights for formerly incarcerated people can vary dramatically by state. While in states like Vermont and Maine people convicted of a crime never lose their right to vote in elections, 11 states generally bar formerly incarcerated people from voting indefinitely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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Welch said the bill is meant to help voters “who have been systemically robbed of their right to participate in our democratic process” and promised that the legislation was part of a broader push for greater voting rights, including through potential reforms to the Voting Rights Act and limits on gerrymandering. Democrats broadly agree on a need for greater voting rights reform but differ in what specific policies are needed.
“We are still in the Civil Rights movement and Jim Crow is not behind us when laws and courts continue to disenfranchise voters from all walks of life — including by gutting the Voting Rights Act, gerrymandering, cuts to early voting, and more,” Pressley said. “We must reject this unjust status quo and advance bold policies to strengthen our democracy and make it more inclusive.”