- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

Hundreds of D.C. Jail inmates awaiting trial or serving misdemeanor sentences registered to vote this year, and the group responsible now wants city officials to permit convicted felons to cast ballots.

D.C.-based National Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, an advocacy group for prisoners and their families, says it helped 350 inmates of the D.C. Jail to register to vote.

Under D.C. law, pretrial inmates and those serving sentences for misdemeanors are eligible to vote. However, such inmates rarely voted until recently because they were not aware they could, said Charles Sullivan, the group’s co-chairman.

“Voting by eligible voters in jail is new territory,” he said.

Mr. Sullivan said 122 of the 350 registered inmates voted in the city’s Jan. 13 presidential primary via absentee ballot. About 16 percent of all voters turned out for the primary citywide.

Late last month, Mr. Sullivan lobbied the D.C. Council’s subcommittee on government operations to generate legislation that would expand voting privileges to include felons.

Only Vermont and Maine currently allow felons to vote.

“I think D.C. is becoming a model on this issue,” Mr. Sullivan said. “Our voting project would have been much more successful if all of the prisoners in the D.C. Jail were eligible to vote.”

In testimony Jan. 30 to the D.C. Council, Mr. Sullivan argued: “Keeping prisoners from voting is in conflict with our ideals and traditions and does not further the goals of criminal justice.”

Council member Vincent Orange said his committee would study the issue.

“We certainly will examine the recommendation about having all [inmates] have the right to vote,” said Mr. Orange, Ward 5 Democrat. “We will look at Maine and Vermont and see how this has actually worked.”

Attempts in other states to allow felons to vote have met resistance, though groups such as CURE say such resistance is beginning to ease.

“Voters are very skeptical to extending voting rights to felons,” said Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a critic of such initiatives.

“Democratic voters are generally more receptive to the restoration of voting rights and, since D.C. is a heavily Democratic area, there probably would not be as much resistance,” Mr. Kirsanow said.

Democrats outnumber Republicans in the District by about 9-to-1.

Opponents of the idea note that a strong turnout among inmates could affect the outcome of local elections for posts such as the Board of Education.

“Concerns have been raised where there is a large prison population, and people in the area worry that it will tilt given elections in a certain way,” Mr. Kirsanow said. “The local people might feel their vote is being diluted.”

Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based advocacy group, said inmates usually are registered not at the jail, but at their last known address before incarceration.

Of the 350 registered inmates at the D.C. Jail, 135 listed the facility as their home address rather than their previous address, said Bill O’Field, spokesman for the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.

The D.C. Jail is located in Precinct 87 in Ward 6, which has 2,662 registered voters.

One advisory neighborhood commissioner in Ward 6 said she has mixed feelings about inmate voting.

“I can see how voting can make them more engaged, and I’m certainly for that,” Jessica Ward said, “but we have so many different folks in D.C. who aren’t paying our taxes, but they’re using our streets and resources. Maybe if we’re going to give these inmates the right to vote, then they should pay for being a D.C. resident, too.”

Mr. O’Field said the board of elections would continue to work with Mr. Sullivan’s group to register eligible voters at the jail.

“The project made for a special outreach to that community, and the board welcomed the effort,” Mr. O’Field said.


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