Republicans and majority of Democrats vote to keep incarcerated people from participating in elections

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Cook County jail detainees check in before casting their votes after a polling place was opened in the facility for early voting on October 17, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. It was the first time pretrial detainees in the jail will get the opportunity for early voting in a general election. Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images
  • Progressive Democrats introduced a measure Tuesday to give incarcerated people the right to vote.
  • The amendment, to major voting rights legislation, failed by a 93-278 vote.
  • It received no Republican support. A majority of Democrats also voted against it.
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“America does not love all its people,” Rep. Cori Bush, a progressive Democrat from Missouri, argued on the floor of the House, saying that more than 5 million Americans are prevented from taking part in an election because they are currently incarcerated.

On Tuesday, Bush and Rep. Mondaire Jones, a New York Democrat, offered an amendment to sweeping voting rights legislation, HR 1. The legislation, as written, would already restore that right for those with felony convictions, but not for those who are now behind bars – one in six of whom are Black.

“This cannot continue,” Bush said. “Disenfranchising our own citizens is not justice.”

The amendment failed. No Republican supported the amendment, and most Democrats opposed it too, leading it to be put down by a vote of 97 to 328.

As it stands, only two states, Maine and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia never take away the right to vote, even when someone is incarcerated. But, per the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states disenfranchise anyone with a felony conviction, even after they have served their prison sentence. And while voting rights are sometimes restored later, there are often additional obstacles.

In Florida, for example, a sweeping majority of voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment restoring the right to vote for convicted felons who were no longer imprisoned. But the Republican-controlled legislature eviscerated the measure, requiring those with felonies on their record – disproportionately Black, overwhelmingly Democratic – to pay off any related fines before they could participate in an election again. According to The New York Times, as many as 80% are financially unable to do so.

Despite being denied the right to vote, those who are imprisoned do count: the US Census considers them residents of whichever place they are incarcerated in, meaning Black and Latino prisoners often help boost the congressional representation of largely white, rural populations.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chair of the House committee that oversees federal elections, noted that HR 1 would end that practice. Under the bill, incarcerated people would be counted, instead, as residents of their own hometowns. But she said that granting them the right to vote appealed to her sense of justice.

“If you’re going to count the individuals for redistricting purposes, in their prisons, then I think they ought to be allowed to vote there,” Lofgren commented. “Further, it occurs to me, those who oppose it think that denying a vote would somehow be a deterrent to criminal conduct. In fact, empowering people to be full citizens encourages rehabilitation.”

In the meantime, Republicans, in power at the state level, are pushing to roll back access to voting. In Georgia, the GOP, most recently stung by a Democratic sweep of its two Senate seats, is pushing to restrict early voting and limit mail-in ballots.

And at the US Supreme Court, Arizona Republicans are defending a rule that throws out the vote of anyone who casts a ballot somewhere other than their designated polling place. As a lawyer for the party said Tuesday, lifting that restriction “puts us at a competitive disadvantage relative to Democrats.” Politics, after all, “is a zero-sum game.”

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