WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, about 10 men detained in the Young Men Emerging unit in the Washington, D.C., jail sat around a TV to watch the Democratic candidates for mayor debate issues including affordable housing and gun violence.
“It was on a communal TV, and it was loud,” said Gregory Barnhart, 25, who is incarcerated in the unit. Barnhart said the men were split in their support for the two Black men challenging current Mayor Muriel Bowser, but all agreed that it was time for a fresh face in the mayor’s office. “Everybody who was there was super interested.”
For Kortez Trasvant, who is 24 and has been detained in the jail since August, it was the first political debate he’d ever watched. Barnhart, who has been in the jail for more than three years, said he also watched a presidential debate in 2020.
Trasvant, Barnhart, and the other men in their unit were particularly interested in the mayoral debate because all of them can vote, even though they are serving time for felonies.
In July 2020, the District became the third place in the nation to grant the right to vote to people who are incarcerated. Just Maine, Vermont, and the District allow anyone to vote while in prison for a felony.
Neither Trasvant nor Barnhart had ever been registered to vote before their time in the District jail, but both say they now understand the importance of having their voices heard.
“People who are incarcerated, we make up a big part of the population and a lot of people who have a lot of strong views that are happening in our society are incarcerated,” Trasvant said. “So if we want to change what’s going on and change the narrative, it’s important for us to take the initiative to vote.”
The Tuesday primary is just the second election in which incarcerated people in D.C. can cast ballots.
It is the first in which the D.C. Board of Elections is legally obligated to provide every D.C. resident in the custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections and the Federal Bureau of Prisons a voter registration application and educational information about their right to vote. Anyone who has registered to vote will receive an absentee ballot.
In November 2020, out of about 4,000 incarcerated D.C. residents, only 562 registered to vote and 264 of them cast ballots.
But voting advocates in the District and at the Board of Elections say they’re hopeful that number will increase this year. Currently, 650 incarcerated D.C. residents are registered to vote — 355 of them in BOP custody and 295 in DOC custody, according to the Board of Elections.
“There’s just a simplicity here,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen, who was an early supporter of the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2020 and who chairs the council’s Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety.
“You’re not going to lose your right to vote. You may have made a really bad decision, and you may have created harm, and so you’re going to lose your freedom, you’re going to be incarcerated, but you haven’t lost that right to vote.”
Still, the District’s fragmented correctional bureaucracy is a challenge. As of May, 1,390 D.C. residents are held in the D.C. jail, under DOC custody, and 2,615 are in federal prisons all over the country. The voter registration rate is higher among people detained in the jail, where outreach has been more frequent and consistent.
Outreach to federal prisons
Trasvant and Barnhart explained in a joint Zoom interview that they’re confident that all the detainees in the D.C. jail know they’re eligible to vote. The hallways are lined with posters informing them of their eligibility and the Board of Elections has worked with jail staff, giving them pamphlets and information and registration applications to hand out in the jail.
Jail staff has also been trained on how to help people register to vote, something they’ve been doing for a long time given that people serving time for misdemeanors have always been eligible, said Nick Jacobs, a public information officer with the Board of Elections.
But informing D.C.’s federal prisoners, who serve their time in roughly 100 different federal prisons outside the District because D.C. has no federal prison of its own, has proven to be more difficult.
Federal detainees from the District are often housed far from home and the District has to rely on the staff at each facility to help get the word out to D.C. residents about their eligibility.
“We’re talking about the entire federal prison system,” Jacobs said.
To reach everyone, the Board of Elections was allocated a larger budget this year, which allowed it to hire two staff members dedicated to the effort.
One of the new hires, Scott Sussman, joined in February from the Bureau of Prisons, where he worked for 26 years. It was important to bring on someone who knows the agency and the best way to work with it, Jacobs said.
According to Sussman, the Board of Elections has mailed BOP facilities registration applications, ballot instructions, and postage paid envelopes and has asked staff at each facility to distribute them to those who are eligible.
“There were some packages that got returned as undeliverable, and we had to send them to a different address, but nobody outright said they wouldn’t do this for us,” he said.
The Board of Elections has also worked with the federal prisons agency to post voter registration applications electronically on an internal prison messaging system to all incarcerated people from the District.
“They allow us to post material specifically targeted to D.C. residents,” Sussman said. “We also supplied them with an electronic version, a PDF, of the voter registration form and some helpful hints on how to fill out that registration form, which they can print and send back.”
The Board of Elections is also trying to work with BOP staff members who help with new prison admissions and orientation, as well as staff members who assist people preparing for release, so everyone is informed of their right to vote.
Sussman said that he feels confident the Board of Elections has been able to make contact with every D.C. resident in federal prison custody, whether it’s through electronic or physical mail.
But “part of the challenge,” Jacobs said, is that prison officials often transfer D.C. residents from one prison to another, and it’s hard to track where people may be at any given point.
When a D.C. resident is moved, the burden is on them to update their voter registration so they can receive a ballot at their new prison address, as the BOP does not share transfer information with the Board of Elections to update the rolls.
It’s also difficult to know who in BOP custody is a D.C. resident because BOP “is unable to provide a comprehensive list due to privacy laws,” Sussman said. “However, they have provided us the number of D.C. residents that are out there. We just have to depend on their staff to distribute material to them.”
Despite some hurdles, Sussman said he believes that “the Bureau of Prisons is going to great lengths to help us, within their rules and regulations.”
In addition to outreach by the D.C. government, the Restore the Vote Coalition — which formed to push towards voting rights restoration in D.C. — has pivoted to voter outreach since the effort succeeded in 2020.
The non-profit organizations involved in the coalition, including the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the D.C. chapter of the League of Women Voters, have also helped to distribute voter guides and registration forms.
Voting in other states
Allen said he’s proud that restoration of voting rights in D.C. passed the council unanimously and was never controversial.
“There weren’t any games being played,” he said. “Everyone just realized it was the right thing to do.”
A few other states have also tried in recent years to restore voting rights to people in prison, but the efforts have all failed.
A legislative attempt in Oregon stalled earlier this year despite strong support among Democratic lawmakers. And legislation was proposed in Illinois but hasn’t made it out of a House committee. Similar unsuccessful bills have also been introduced in Hawaii, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
In some cities, including Houston, Los Angeles, and Chicago, people detained in jail for misdemeanors can vote at a polling place inside the jail, but Texas, California, and Illinois all prohibit people convicted of felonies from casting ballots while incarcerated.
Across the country, roughly 5.2 million people were disenfranchised as of 2020 because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project. The population shut out from elections is disproportionately Black, with 1 in 16 Black adults disenfranchised nationally.
Rights restoration laws vary from state to state, with 20 states allowing people to vote as soon as they leave prison and 16 others requiring people to complete periods of probation to get their rights back. In 11 states, certain people with felony convictions lose their right to vote for life.
A stronger connection
Despite being incarcerated and not knowing when they will be released, Trasvant and Barnhart both said being able to vote makes them feel more connected to their D.C. community. They said they see no reason why other states shouldn’t follow the District’s lead.
“I feel like it’s something everybody should do across the whole United States because it’s imperative that our voices get heard too,” Trasvant said.
“It should spread across the nation because over 2 million people are incarcerated at the moment and those are a lot of voices that need to be heard,” Barnhart added. “I do believe that Washington, D.C., taking the initiative with Vermont and Maine to allow those incarcerated to vote, they’re taking a big step to lay the groundwork for the rest of the nation to follow.”