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Oregon lawmakers to try again to restore prisoners’ right to vote

Oregon lawmakers, stuck in their attempt earlier this year to restore the franchise to thousands of incarcerated Oregonians, will try again in 2022.

Representative Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland, announced Thursday that she plans to introduce legislation for the February session of the Oregon Legislature to restore the right to vote for those serving sentences for crimes. If passed, approximately 12,000 to 15,000 incarcerated people would have their voting rights restored.

The reform would mean that everyone incarcerated in the state, whether in state jails or county jails, could vote while in custody. Oregon has banned inmates from voting since the territory created the Deprivation of Voting Act in an 1857 constitutional convention.

“The right to vote is fundamental,” said Reynolds. “It maintains the foundation of our democracy, and democracy works best when everyone has a voice. We cannot continue the decades of denial of the right to vote of those incarcerated in our state. “

The change would have a disproportionate impact on the state’s African American population, as black people reconcile over 9% of Oregon’s prison population, although it comprises less than 2% of the state’s population.

Currently, only Maine, Vermont, and Washington, DC allow people to vote while incarcerated. If the bill is successful, Oregon would be the first state to end the practice of felony denial of the right to vote.

Although the proposal never got off committee in the 2021 session in Oregon, advocates predicted it had a better chance in February and they expect most Democratic lawmakers to sign as as sponsors. Five Democratic lawmakers attended the launch of the online campaign on Thursday.

“This time around, there’s even more energy,” said Zach Winston, policy director for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, which advocates for change. “Our coalition has grown to ten organizations, and there is significant community support. “

Winston explained that the latest legislative proposal failed after state corrections produced an “unexpected” budget note, estimating the cost of letting inmates vote in the current two-year budget cycle to be over 400,000 $. The cost was for hiring two full-time employees to help incarcerated people register to vote.

“We haven’t had the chance to fight it,” he said.

This year, Reynolds said she intends to propose a policy change that should trigger no fiscal impact and has spoken with Corrections to allay concerns about the need for additional staff.

Senator Akasha Lawrence Spence, a Democrat from Portland recently appointed to the Senate, said legislative renewal could also help push through the proposal. The senator she replaced was not among the co-sponsors of the 2021 bill, and the northwest coast of Oregon will soon have a new Democratic senator in place of State Senator Betsy Johnson , who co-chaired the committee that took no action on the latest legislation.

“There’s going to be a lot more diversity in the two chambers in terms of lived experience, in terms of racial and ethnic background and things like that,” Lawrence Spence said. “I think that’s going to be a different driving force behind it.”

Incarcerated Oregonians would vote using their last known address prior to incarceration. Last session there was confusion among lawmakers over this, Winston said, with some fearing to use jail as an address.

All Oregonians who are registered to vote automatically receive their ballots in the mail, and a 2019 law added prepaid return envelopes. Ballots cannot be forwarded, but people can have them sent to a temporary address, such as a college dorm or county jail. People awaiting trial or serving a sentence for an offense retain their right to vote.

“We’re in a perfect position to do this,” said Isabela Villarreal, policy and communications manager for Next Up Oregon, which also supports the change. “With the postage paid, they wouldn’t even have to try to find a stamp or pay for a stamp. “

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan supports the coalition working to pass the legislation, according to the coalition.

Anthony Pickens, who now works as a paralegal for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was jailed after shooting a man while he was a 15-year-old gang member in 1997. Governor Kate Brown granted him clemency in September.

He said he frequently heard that formerly or currently incarcerated people have no interest in voting. But his own experience with prison elections for cultural clubs and mock presidential elections convinced him that this is not true.

“As a former prisoner, I know that when a person is involved in the process that affects their future and their community, it makes them feel that they are part of that community,” he said. “And when a person feels part of a community, we are also more inclined to take care of that community and nurture it. “

Illinois lawmakers introduced similar legislation this year to end its felony denial of the franchise practice. While he was finally missing three votes in October, the defenders plan to push for its passage in January or February.

In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds argued for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore the right to vote to those convicted of crimes. When this stalled in the Legislature in 2019, she signed an executive order ahead of the 2020 election to allow former criminals to vote.

Nationwide, an estimated 5.2 million people are deprived of the right to vote due to a felony conviction, according to a 2020 Sentencing Project Report. Laws vary from state to state, 11 restricting the right to vote until people leave prison and complete probation and parole, 16 restoring people’s rights when they complete their sentence, including probation and parole, and 21 allowing people to vote upon release from prison.

State disenfranchisement laws date back to the Jim Crow era, when white lawmakers searched for a way to prevent former slaves from gaining political power.

Advocates for criminal justice and voting reform have drawn attention to the racist roots of the laws, and efforts in Oregon are part of a national movement to eliminate or weaken policies of deprivation of the law. right to vote.

According to the Sentencing Project, ten states have repealed or amended permanent life deprivation laws since 1997 and 10 states have restored the rights of those on probation or parole since 1997, according to the Sentencing Project.

“I think people just got used to the disenfranchisement laws and they don’t understand why we got used to them and why they were enacted in the first place, which was largely based on white supremacy, ”Winston said.

Winston said he hoped Oregon would change its law and be a role model for other states to follow suit.

“I think it’s important for Oregon to show that it can take the lead on an issue, and it’s a great issue that you have to be present on,” he said.

This article was originally published in the Chronicle of the capital of Oregon.