Oregon Bill Would Enable People to Vote from Prison

The reform would be a historic step for national efforts to end felony disenfranchisement. Prison is not about "the loss of citizenship," said one incarcerated advocate.

Kira Lerner   |    January 25, 2021

Andrea Salinas introduced legislation to enable people to vote from prison in Oregon (Andrea Salinas/Facebook)

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

Lawmakers in Oregon introduced legislation this month that would enable people in prison to vote. The proposed bills, filed in both chambers of the Democrat-run legislature, would add Oregon to the growing set of jurisdictions with no felony disenfranchisement. Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., already do not strip anyone of the right to vote when they are convicted of a felony. 

Oregon would technically be the first state to abolish felony disenfranchisement, since Maine and Vermont never practiced it in the first place, and D.C. is not a state.

Advocates say this milestone is long overdue given the racist roots of felony disenfranchisement rules and its connection to punitive norms. They hope that by making history in Oregon they can pave the way for other states to expand voting rights as well.

“Prison is about the loss of liberty, not the loss of citizenship,” Anthony Richardson, who is incarcerated at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, told The Appeal: Political Report in an email. Richardson, who gave a presentation to lawmakers on disenfranchisement in 2019, said not having the right to vote makes him feel like less of a citizen. He has been incarcerated since he was a minor, so he has never voted.

Representative Andrea Salinas, a Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation in the Oregon House, told the Political Report that the issue is personal because her cousin was incarcerated multiple times and ultimately died by suicide. 

“When the advocates came to me with this bill, I was like, ‘This is what my cousin Andrew would have needed—a piece of what he would have needed to stay connected to the community,” she said.

Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, who is advocating for the bill, agrees that enabling incarcerated people in Oregon to vote would help them transition back into their communities upon release. “This type of punishment … doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “It has no correlation to public safety.”

Oregon is one of 19 states that enables at least anyone who is not incarcerated to vote, even if they are on probation or parole; other states have more restrictive rules. But very few states allow all people with felony convictions to vote throughout their incarceration. 

The bill’s proponents point out that stripping people of their rights in prison has major implications for racial justice given the vast disparities in the state’s criminal legal system.The proposed bill would restore the voting rights of people incarcerated over felony convictions in Oregon—a population of at least 13,000 as of the 2020 election that is roughly 9 percent Black in a state whose Black population is just 2.5 percent.

Singh says that ending felony disenfranchisement would be a significant step toward eliminating laws created in the Jim Crow era that are rooted in white supremacy.

Richardson echoed that assessment, noting that Oregon first disenfranchised people in prison “over 160 years ago, during a time of forced labor, exclusion laws, lashings, lynching, and policies designed solely to benefit white men and oppress people of color,“ and “continues to forbid Oregonians in prison from being valued as human beings in this state.”

The bill already has 15 co-sponsors between the state Senate and House. One of them is Floyd Prozanski, the Democratic senator who leads the Judiciary Committee, where the legislation now sits. Prozanski, a former assistant district attorney who now works as a municipal prosecutor when the legislature is not in session, said he supports the legislation because he’s a firm believer in making  the criminal legal system more restorative, and not punitive.

“Individuals who commit crimes need to be held accountable, but they should not be stripped of their rights as a citizen,” he said. “As a citizen, they should have the continued right to vote and have a say in their government, even if they are incarcerated.”

The bill also may have prominent supporters outside of the legislature. Mike Schmidt, the new DA of Multnomah County (Portland), told the Political Report during his campaign last year that he was supportive of abolishing felony disenfranchisement. “If that’s something that we can be doing to get people enthusiastic about participation in society, it just seems like such a no-brainer to me,” he said.

Shemia Fagan, Oregon’s secretary of state, told the Political Report that she is open to considering it as a way to expand upon the work her office has done in recent years to increase ballot access in Oregon.

“There is more work to be done here and across the country though—including for adults in custody,” she said in an email. “I look forward to learning more about the bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature while building on our work to ensure everyone has fair access to the ballot.” Governor Kate Brown’s office would not comment on pending legislation.  

Singh and Samantha Gladu, executive director of the Oregon civil rights organization Next Up, said their groups decided in recent years to prioritize voting rights for incarcerated people because it was one of the policy ideas most discussed when they met with a group of young people in prison. 

Efforts against felony disenfranchisement have gained traction in recent years, with six states and Washington, D.C., expanding their electorates since 2019. Among them are California, where voters passed a ballot initiative in November that extends voting rights to people on parole, and Kentucky and Iowa, where the governors signed executive orders restoring the right to vote to some people upon completion of their sentences. 

But Washington, D.C.’s success last year was the first proposal to altogether abolish felony disenfranchisement that succeeded. Legislatures in 2019 in Hawaii and New Mexico moved bills past one committee, but were not successful in getting it passed. Lawmakers also filed bills allowing all incarcerated citizens to vote in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and other states.

The idea also gained steam during the Democratic presidential primary in 2019 when U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders committed his support to ending felony disenfranchisement, forcing the other candidates to go on the record about the issue as well. The For the People Act, passed by the U.S. House in March 2019 and unveiled in the Senate this week, would restore the voting rights of people with felony convictions who are not incarcerated.

At the state level, advocates are planning more efforts to enable incarcerated people to vote this year. The ACLU of Virginia launched an effort this month urging the governor to support that position. A group of Democratic lawmakers in Georgia recently introduced a bill to end felony disenfranchisement, although it’s highly unlikely to move forward in a state where the GOP controls the state government. 

With Democrats in control of all chambers of government in Oregon, voting advocates say the proposal is unlikely to face intense opposition, and Singh said he is “very optimistic” that it will pass this year. 

Advocates also say Oregon is well-suited for this move since its vote-by-mail system will ease voting from prison, which typically involves absentee ballots. The Oregon legislation would enable people to register to vote at their last address, as is the case in other states.

Oregon became the first state to vote by mail in a federal election in 1996, and in 2019, it passed legislation mandating that the state pay return postage for every voter’s ballot. As a result, advocates say the implementation of prison voting would be straight-forward and that election officials could easily put ballot drop boxes in each of the state’s prisons. 

“Mechanically and logistically, this is actually a very easy lift for Oregon,” he said. 

Salinas, the lawmaker, also thinks that Oregon is ready. “I don’t see a downside to this, quite honestly,” she said. “Oregon is so committed to expanding voting rights and expanding democracy, and that principle is so ingrained in Oregonians on both sides of the aisle.”

If Oregon were to pass the legislation, advocates say it could inspire other Democrat-controlled states to make it a priority. 

“I hope we’re on the front edge of a humongous wave over the next two to five years,” Singh said. “I’m hoping that by passing this, we can not only demonstrate to Oregonians but to the rest of the country that when we say we cherish the right to vote and political participation, we mean that.”