Ballots Behind Bars

Could 2023 be the year Oregon restores voting rights to people with felony convictions?

By Julia Shumway

A coalition of civil rights groups stymied in their attempts over the past two years to expand voting rights to Oregonians serving time for felony convictions believe 2023 could be the year they succeed.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, has scheduled Senate Bill 579, which would restore voting rights to about 12,000 currently incarcerated people, for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday. Supporters including Zach Winston, policy director at the Oregon Justice Resource Center, say they’re confident the proposal has enough support to pass in both the House and Senate, though it’s been a top target for Republican legislators.

“Legislators are much more familiar with the concept, much more familiar with the issue and the bill,” Winston said. “And we believe that we have secured the necessary votes in the Senate, and we believe we’ll have the votes in the House, and so we do expect this to be different from 2021 and 2022.”

Almost every state revokes voting rights from people convicted of felonies. Oregon, along with Washington and California, is one of 21 states that automatically restores voting rights upon release from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 16 other states, felons can have their voting rights restored automatically after completing post-prison parole or probation, and may have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution to regain the rights.

Another 11 states permanently disenfranchise some people convicted of felonies or require those individuals to seek pardons or apply to have their voting rights restored. Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., allow people to vote while incarcerated.

People who haven’t been convicted or who are serving time for minor crimes or misdemeanors in county jails maintain their voting rights and can have ballots mailed to jails.

Oregon’s felon disenfranchisement law dates back to the state’s 1857 constitutional convention. Many other states, particularly in the south, revoked voting rights from people convicted of certain crimes after Black men were granted the right to vote by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

Bans on incarcerated people voting disproportionately impact Black Oregonians. About 8.7 percent of adults in custody are Black, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections, but only 2.3 percent of the state’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. White people make up 73 percent of the prison population and 74 percent of the state’s total population. The rest of those incarcerated in Oregon are classified as Hispanic or other races.


‘Racial justice issue’

“This is a racial justice issue,” said Nicole Porter, senior director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project. “It’s a civil rights issue, and it’s part of the movement to guarantee rights for all residents in Oregon and across the country.”

Anthony Pickens, a paralegal for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, was imprisoned from age 15 to 39 after he shot and killed a man in a botched robbery. Former Gov. Kate Brown commuted his sentence in September 2021.

“I was removed from society before I even had an opportunity to participate in civic engagement, something that during my time of incarceration, I started to develop a very strong passion for over the years,” Pickens said. “But I was not allowed to allow that passion to flourish in the sense of action, because I didn’t have the right to vote while inside.”

Another former prisoner, Kyle Black, said incarcerated people want to engage with the communities they’ll return to after finishing their sentences. Black was convicted in 1996 of bludgeoning her grandmother to death with a claw hammer to collect her inheritance. A judge released her last fall after hearing that she had been a model prisoner who mentored others.

“Reestablishing voting gives you the ability to vote on the things that are happening in your community that are affecting your children, affecting your family, affecting those that you care about,” she said. “It’s the community that you’re going to return to, and so you are a representative of that community.”

The measure calls for incarcerated people to be registered to vote in the county where they lived before they were arrested.


Republican opposition

Senate Republicans including Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, have repeatedly spoken against the bill on the Senate floor, in press conferences and in letters to constituents. They’ve vowed to oppose it should it come up for a vote.

“We might have a bill that comes to this floor to allow the worst evil, the ability to vote while incarcerated for child rape and other horrific crimes,” Brock Smith said on the Senate floor Jan. 31.

And Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, told reporters earlier in January that he believes the public will side with Republicans who oppose extending voting rights to incarcerated people.

“We don’t think felons should be voting for the district attorney or the sheriff who may have arrested them,” Knopp said. “I don’t think we should have felons who are in prison voting on the sentences for rape or murder. It just doesn’t seem like a very good idea, and I don’t think the public is going to like it either.”

Democrats hold 35 of 60 seats in the House and 17 of 30 in the Senate, and they don’t need Republican support to pass most legislation. However, fiscal concerns could doom the proposal, as they did in 2021.

An analysis attached to the measure estimates that implementing it would cost the Secretary of State’s Office $800,000 over the next four years to hire staff to ensure incarcerated people can register to vote and receive ballots. The Department of Corrections also anticipates that it might have to hire more staff, though it didn’t provide legislative fiscal analysts with an estimate.

Supporters are discussing an amendment to postpone the implementation, Winston said. There’s no date in the current bill, meaning that it would take effect on Jan. 1, 2024 if passed this year.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has submitted testimony in support of the bill. Separately, she’s pushing legislation to create a pilot program to make sure people leaving one prison receive state-issued IDs and are automatically registered to vote upon completing their sentences.

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