Oregon legislators will try again to restore prisoners’ voting rights

Up to 15,000 Oregonians could participate in elections while serving their sentences

By: and - December 16, 2021 3:01 pm

Oregon legislators are reviving an effort to restore voting rights to thousands of Oregonians serving prison sentences. (Getty Images)

Oregon legislators stymied in their attempt earlier this year to restore voting rights to thousands of incarcerated Oregonians will try again in 2022.

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

The reform would mean that all people incarcerated in the state, whether in state prisons or county jails, could vote while in detention. Oregon has barred inmates from voting since the territory created the disenfranchisement law in an 1857 constitutional convention.

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

The change would disproportionately impact the state’s African-American population, as Black people make up more than 9% of Oregon’s prison population despite comprising under 2% of the state population.

Currently just Maine, Vermont, and Washington, D.C., allow people to vote while incarcerated. If the bill succeeds, Oregon would be the first state to end the practice of felony disenfranchisement. 

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

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

Winston explained that the last legislative proposal failed after the state Corrections Department produced an “unexpected” fiscal note, estimating the cost to let inmates vote in the current two-year budget cycle would be more than $400,000. The cost was for hiring two full-time employees to help incarcerated people register to vote. 

“We didn’t have a chance to combat it,” he said. 

This year, Reynolds said she’s intent on proposing a policy change that shouldn’t trigger any fiscal impact and is talking to the Corrections Department to assuage concerns about needing additional staff. 

Sen. Akasha Lawrence Spence, a Portland Democrat recently appointed to the Senate, said legislative turnover could also help pass the proposal. The senator she replaced wasn’t among the co-sponsors of the 2021 bill, and the northwest Oregon coast will soon have a new Democratic senator instead of state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who co-chaired the committee that took no action on the last legislation. 

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

Incarcerated Oregonians would cast ballots using their last known address before incarceration. Last session, there was confusion among lawmakers about that point, Winston said, with some concerned they would use the prison as their address.

All Oregonians who are registered to vote automatically receive their ballots in the mail, and a 2019 law added pre-paid return envelopes. Ballots can’t be forwarded, but people can have them sent to a temporary address, such as a college dorm or a county jail. People waiting for trial or serving time for a misdemeanor retain their right to vote. 

“We’re perfectly situated to actually do this,” said Isabela Villarreal, policy and communications manager for Next Up Oregon, which is also supporting the change. “Because of paid postage, they wouldn’t even have to try to find a stamp or pay for a stamp.”

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan is supporting 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 incarcerated after he shot a man as a 15-year-old gang member in 1997. Gov. Kate Brown granted him clemency in September. 

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

“As someone who was formerly incarcerated, I know that when a person is involved in the process which affects their futures and communities, it makes them feel a part of that community,” he said. “And when a person feels a part of a community, we are more inclined to care and nurture that community as well.” 

Lawmakers in Illinois introduced similar legislation this year to end its practice of felony disenfranchisement. While it ultimately ended up three votes short in October, advocates plan to push for its passage in January or February.

Nationally, roughly 5.2 million people are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, according to a Sentencing Project report from 2020. Laws vary state by state, with 11 restricting voting rights until people leave prison and complete probation and parole, 16 restoring rights to people when they complete their sentence including probation and parole, and 21 allowing people to vote as soon as they leave prison. 

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

Criminal justice reform and voting advocates have brought attention to the laws’ racist roots, and the effort in Oregon is part of a national movement to eliminate or weaken disenfranchisement policies.

Ten states have either repealed or amended permanent lifetime disenfranchisement laws since 1997 and ten states have restored rights to people on probation or parole since 1997, according to the Sentencing Project.

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

Winston said he hopes Oregon will change its law and be a model for other states to follow suit. 

“I think it’s important that Oregon shows it can lead on an issue, and this is a great issue to be in front on,” he said. 

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Kira Lerner

Kira Lerner is the democracy reporter for States Newsroom in Washington, D.C. She has previously covered voting, criminal justice, and civil rights issues for publications including Votebeat and The Appeal.

Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.