Oregon takes step toward letting people in prison vote

State budgeters will now decide if expanding voting rights to about 12,000 people is worth the cost

By: - March 9, 2023 4:28 pm

A Senate panel gave preliminary approval to a proposal to let Oregon prisoners, including the roughly 1,700 people held at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, vote beginning in 2026. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Oregonians in prison for felony convictions would regain the right to vote beginning in 2026 under a proposal that won preliminary approval from a legislative panel Thursday. 

Senate Bill 579 passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 3-2 vote, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. It now heads to the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, where lawmakers will decide whether expanding voting rights to about 12,000 incarcerated people is worth a $750,000 cost.

People convicted of felonies lose their right to vote while serving their sentences in almost every state. In Oregon and 21 other states, those individuals regain their voting rights upon release from prison. People in county jails who haven’t been convicted and sentenced or who are serving time for minor crimes or misdemeanors still can vote. 

The measure would require the state to let people in prison begin registering to vote and casting ballots on June 1, 2026. An amendment approved by the committee Thursday postponed the measure’s effective date to give the Secretary of State’s Office, the Department of Corrections and cities and counties more time to prepare for mailing ballots. 

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat and municipal prosecutor who leads the committee, said he saw positive results of letting prisoners vote during a 2017 visit he and three other legislators made to Norway. That country focuses on rehabilitating prisoners and expects them to participate in society from behind bars, attending classes, working and voting. 

“You can either use retribution or you can use styles of reform,” Prozanski said. “We’ll get better success by incentivizing individuals, and what better way to engage them in the civic process than letting them retain their right to vote?”

Under the measure, prisoners who choose to vote would be registered with their last residence in the community and receive their ballot by mail in prison. That means a person who lived in Eugene before an arrest but is serving their sentence in Pendleton, for instance, would vote in Eugene-area elections. 

Legislative Republicans strongly oppose the measure. Before the committee meeting began, Sen. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, blasted out an email asking opponents to call Prozanski and fellow Democratic Sens. Sara Gelser Blouin of Corvallis and James Manning of Eugene and tell them to vote against it. 

The two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls and Kim Thatcher of Keizer, described concerns that extending voting rights to people in prison would cause corruption. There’s nothing to stop someone from bribing prisoners to vote for a specific candidate with contraband like cigarettes, Linthicum warned. 

“We’re acting like this is a normal, free society with debate clubs,” Linthicum said. “It isn’t.”

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has submitted a letter supporting the measure, calling it a civil rights issue. While the majority of Oregon’s prisoners and the majority of the state’s population are white, Black people make up nearly 9% of the state’s prison population and only 2% of the state’s total population.

Fagan also supports a separate measure, House Bill 2107, that would create a pilot program at Powder Creek Correctional Facility beginning in 2027 to ensure people leaving prison are automatically registered to vote and receive updated driver’s licenses or state identification cards.


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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.