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The Center Square: Oregon would be third state to guarantee prisoners right to vote under bill

By Tim Gruver | The Center Square

(The Center Square) — Oregon ranks among the easiest states to vote in, and state lawmakers want that to be true for everyone behind bars too.

For almost 20 years, the vote-by-mail state continues to see some of the highest voter turnout in the country. In 2020, 78.5% of Oregon voters cast 2.3 million votes or the most in state history. A bill this session would include the state's more than 12,000 prisoners among them.

Sponsored by Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, Senate Bill 571 would allow the state's more than 12,000 convicted felons to register to vote, update their voter registration, and vote from prison using their last residential address.

SB 571 has big backing already from the ACLU of Oregon, the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, the League of Women Voters of Oregon, and Secretary of State Shemia Fagan.

"My agency's job is to uphold Oregon's democracy," Fagan said. "This bill stands for the simple proposition that when somebody is incarcerated, they don't stop being citizens."

Maine and Vermont remain the only two states in America where prisoners can vote while incarcerated in addition to the District of Columbia.

Though Oregon does not disenfranchise released prisoners, research including one University of California Berkeley study found that whether a released prisoner had voting rights decreased risk of recidivism by about 10%.

Supporters of the bill see it as overdue racial justice rectifying the country's centuries of racial disenfranchisement.

English colonists brought with them to North America the common law practice of “civil death,” criminal penalties which included stripping someone of voting rights. Connecticut was the only state 200 years ago to legalize the practice.

By the beginning of the Civil War, 17 states followed. Once slavery was abolished, another 10 states joined them. Prior to statehood in 1859, Oregon was the only U.S. territory to ban Black individuals from its borders all together.

Samantha Gladu, executive director of civic action group Next Up Action, told state lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday that the bill is an essential civil rights issue.

"This is a big bill, but it's not scary," Gladu said. "To continue to delineate who we restore rights to based on sentencing is a failure to recognize the unimpeachable rights that we all have as citizens."

State Department of Corrections data shows Latinos amount for 12% of the state, but make up 16% of its prison population while white people make up 78% of the state and 69% of its inmates. Black people still see the highest disparities, making up 2% of the state and 10% of its prisoners.

Some research also suggests felony disenfranchisement deters ex-felons from voting as many remain unaware of their eligibility, often deterring those around them from political participation.

As the authors of a Stanford report on the matter wrote, "disenfranchisement not only impacts the felons themselves, but also disempower the group to which they belong."

Of the more than 60 people submitting written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, most supported the bill, but many argued restoring voting rights to prisoners would diminish the purpose of imprisonment: punishment.

"Allowing convicted felons to have the right to vote while incarcerated removes one the fundamental punishments for breaking the law in America," wrote concerned citizen Carolyn Polzel. "The right to vote is sacred and should be held at the highest value. Allowing incarcerated criminals this right decreases the value of the right to vote."

State Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, shared the view of many testifying that prisons should be preparing prisoners for freedom, of which civic engagement is a critical part.

"The ability to vote while incarcerated reminds people that they are still meaningful members of society, and it encourages them towards civic participation," Pham said. "Incarcerated folks are directly impacted by elections, from their meals to their medical care to the school districts that their children attend, the laws that we create."

Others preferred a system restoring voting rights to certain prisoners depending on the reason for their incarceration.

"This kind of bargaining would once again be denying humanity, autonomy and citizenship of incarcerated community members," Gladu said.

Proponents of the bill also believe it would allow state laws to better reflect a 1996 amendment to the Oregon Constitution, which maintains "laws for the punishment of crimes" be guided by principles of "protection of society, personal responsibility, accountability for one’s actions and reformation."

"We know that the civic engagement model of reentry, one that involves community through service and restorative justice, works far better than forcing inmates to undergo 'civil death,'" wrote Rebecca Gladstone and Marge Easley of the League of Women Voters of Oregon.

On Wednesday, SB 571 had picked up 16 sponsors including Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Floyd Prozanksi, D-Eugene.

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