Oregon law has prevented Anthony Richardson from voting his entire life.
Imprisoned before he was eligible to vote, he's denied this basic right of our democracy despite the fact that he's an adult citizen. Richardson has a deep interest in civic engagement and is dedicated to improving himself and his community. During his incarceration he has helped influence changes in juvenile justice policies and inspired community partners to support him and other incarcerated Oregonians in developing legislation to restore voting rights to people in prison.
Without a change in law, Richardson, who is serving a life sentence, will never exercise this fundamental right of citizenship for all Americans. Without a change in law, Oregon will never be a truly representative democracy.
Across the country 25 states in almost as many years have acted to expand voting rights to people with felony convictions. A recent report from The Sentencing Project found that more than 5 million Americans with felony convictions are banned from voting. However, last year, Washington, D.C., joined Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico to guarantee full voting rights to people in prisons. Oregon can join them by enacting House Bill 2366 and Senate Bill 571.
Oregon disenfranchises individuals serving a felony sentence of incarceration. As of May, as many as 12,190 Oregonians are denied the right to vote.
Felony disenfranchisement weakens the political power of communities of color, even among people who do not have a felony conviction. Nationally, 39% of people disenfranchised in prisons are African American, whereas African Americans make up 13% of the nation's population. This is because individuals of color are prosecuted and sentenced at much higher rates than whites for comparable behavior.
Disenfranchisement laws are rooted in the nation's founding. Initially, white male elites limited voting rights to their peers, excluding women, African Americans, poor people, persons who could not read, and those with felony convictions. Most exclusions have been overturned, leaving felony disenfranchisement as the key remaining obstacle to full citizenship in the United States.
People in prison are guaranteed certain constitutional rights — such as the right to get married or divorced, or to buy or sell property. They can also share their political opinions through public writing, letters, and phone calls. Earlier this year, Anthony Richardson and dozens of imprisoned citizens submitted testimony to lawmakers in support of universal suffrage.
While there is no legitimate justification for felony disenfranchisement, there is ample reason to believe that providing the right to vote would benefit Oregon. Research shows that formerly incarcerated persons who obtain stable work and reunite with their families are most likely to avoid future interactions with the criminal legal system. This is because once an individual rejoins the community—through gainful employment, payment of taxes and resumption of family duties—they are accountable to that community. Any and all duties that help them fully reintegrate will motivate that individual to fully participate in the community. Voting is part of that process.
Think about the persons participating in prison rehabilitation. They are most likely to succeed if they feel part of the larger community and their civic participation will help. If we tell them that they are a second-class citizen, that only reinforces barriers to their rehabilitation.
By extending the right to vote to persons in prison, we can build a more inclusive democracy and make our communities safer.
Rep. Tawna Sanchez represents House District 43. Rep. Andrea Salinas represents House District 38. Amy Fettig is executive director of The Sentencing Project.
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