This article originally appeared in The Guardian.
Washington DC is set to allow imprisoned people to vote, a significant move because US states have long disenfranchised those with felony convictions, even after they have served their sentences behind bars.
There were more than 6 million Americans who were unable to vote in the 2018 midterms because of a felony conviction. Washington DC’s plan would put the US Capitol in line with just two other states in the country.
Washington DC has a very high incarceration rate and up to 4,500 people could be affected by the measure, included in emergency police reform legislation that passed the city council this week.
“Expanding voting rights to persons in prison is a historic step for American democracy,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, in a statement. “I am hopeful that the District’s action will inspire states to recognize the value of universal suffrage and the engagement of all its citizens.”
The US has some of the strictest policies in the world when it comes to disenfranchising people convicted of felonies of their right to vote, and states have widely divergent policies dictating whether someone can regain their voting rights once released from prison.
In recent years, however, there has been a push to ease these restrictions, recognizing that many of them have roots in the Jim Crow south and were part of an effort to disenfranchise African Americans after they gained the right to vote.
All of those efforts, however, have focused on making it easier to restore voting rights after someone is released from prison; the DC measure is unique in that it focuses on restoring voting rights while people are still incarcerated.
“The movement to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions has largely stalled at the prison gates,” Christopher Uggen, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies felon disenfranchisement, wrote in an email.
“In recent years, many states have torn down post-sentence voting restrictions and restrictions on people serving probation and parole sentences in the community. Prisoners, however, have generally been excluded from these reforms.”
Maine and Vermont are the only other states where those convicted of felonies are permitted to vote in prison. Other states have taken starkly different approaches. Prisoners in Utah lost the right to vote in 1998, as did Massachusetts inmates in 2000.
If approved by the Washington DC mayor, Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, the new law would be in effect for 90 days, according to the Washington Post, though the city, could approve a more permanent version this fall.