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December 6, 2023

Pressley, Welch Unveil Historic Bill to Guarantee Right to Vote for Incarcerated Citizens

Approximately 4.6 million citizens are denied voting rights in Federal elections due to criminal convictions

Bill Text | Bill Summary | Press Conference | Photos

WASHINGTON — Today, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) and Senator Peter Welch (D-VT) unveiled the Inclusive Democracy Act, brand new, first-of-its-kind legislation that would end felony disenfranchisement in Federal elections and guarantee the right to vote for incarcerated citizens. The lawmakers’ bill comes as an estimated 4.6 million citizens – disproportionately Black and brown citizens – are denied voting rights because of a criminal conviction.

The legislation was unveiled at a press conference earlier today. Rep. Pressley read an excerpt of testimony from Derrick Washington, an incarcerated resident, provided at a historic hearing at the Massachusetts State House earlier this year. Footage of the press conference can be viewed here and photos are available here.

“Too often, citizens behind the wall and those with a record are wrongfully stripped of their sacred right to vote and denied the opportunity to participate in our democracy. With Republicans and the Supreme Court stopping at nothing to undermine voting rights and exclude Black and brown folks from participating in our democracy, we must protect and expand access to the ballot box – including for incarcerated citizens,” said Rep. Pressley. “As someone whose family has been personally impacted by mass incarceration, I’m proud to partner with Senator Welch on the Inclusive Democracy Act to ensure everyone can make their voice heard in our democracy. Momentum is growing in states across the country and Congress must follow suit by swiftly passing this crucial legislation.”

“Our democracy is at its strongest when everyone can equitably take part in it. Yet millions of Americans are denied their right to engage in our democratic process as a result of antiquated state felony disenfranchisement laws that disproportionately impact Black Americans and women. Today I’m proud to introduce the Inclusive Democracy Act with Congresswoman Pressley, a step forward in restoring the voices of millions of Americans and ensuring everyone has the right to vote,” said Sen. Welch. “This bill is all about helping disenfranchised voters who have been systemically robbed of their right to participate in our democratic process. I’m going to keep working to strengthen and modernize the Voting Rights Act and combat practices like gerrymandering designed to deprive marginalized communities of their right to vote. Laws from the Jim Crow-era have no place in modern America, and we must always vigorously oppose and condemn those who scheme to exclude marginalized communities from participating in our democracy.”

The practice of felony disenfranchisement is biased, counterproductive, and deters eligible voters from civic engagement. By entangling the criminal legal system in our elections, people who are disproportionately affected, especially Black citizens, are unfairly disenfranchised and excluded from representation. Additionally, there are inconsistent systems across 48 states that treat different crimes as felonies and set different standards for disenfranchisement.

The Inclusive Democracy Act is groundbreaking legislation that would end felony disenfranchisement in Federal elections. Specifically, the bill would:

  • Guarantee the right to vote in Federal elections for citizens who have criminal convictions;
  • Require State and Federal entities to notify individuals who are convicted, incarcerated, on probation, or on parole of their right to vote in Federal elections;
  • Outline the process for citizens in carceral settings to register to vote by mail, if registration is required by their State;
  • Outline the process for citizens in carceral settings to vote by mail, including protecting and prioritizing election mail, curing ballots with mistakes, and casting a provision ballot;
  • Ensure citizens in carceral settings have access to information about elections through mechanisms available to them such as  the internet, campaigns, and third party groups;
  • Provide guidance to State officials to not prosecute citizens in carceral settings who complete an election ballot that includes an election they are not eligible to vote in; and
  • Provide a private right of action to enforce this legislation.

The legislation is co-sponsored by Representatives Cori Bush (MO-01), Troy A. Carter, Sr. (LA-02), Yvette D. Clarke (NY-09), Maxwell Alejandro Frost (FL-10), Dan Goldman (NY-10), Henry C. (“Hank”) Johnson, Jr. (GA-04), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (CA-37), Barbara Lee (CA-12), Summer Lee (PA-12), Kevin Mullin (CA-15), Jerrold Nadler (NY-12), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC-DE), Chellie Pingree (ME-01), Jan Schakowsky (IL-09), Rashida Tlaib (MI-12), Paul D. Tonko (NY-20), and Nikema Williams (GA-05), and Senators Edward J. Markey (D-MA) and Bernie Sanders (D-VT).

The legislation is endorsed by: Prison Policy Initiative, The Sentencing Project, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), Unheard Voices Outreach, More Than Our Crimes, ISAIAH, Arizona Asian American native Hawaiian Pacific Islander for Equity (AZ AANHPI for Equity), Initiate Justice Action, Illinois Alliance for Reentry and Justice, Illinois Coalition to End Permanent Punishments, The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, Human Rights Watch, Campaign Legal Center, Demos, Center for Popular Democracy, Black Voters Matter Fund, Stand Up America, Common Cause, Full Citizens Coalition, Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, SawariMedia, Montana Women Vote, Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People & Families Movement, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), Coalition on Human Needs, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, National Council of Churches, Church World Service, Democracy Behind Bars, and African American Coalition Committee.

“The African American Coalition Committee and Democracy Behind Bars Coalition are grateful for the filing of this legislation by U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley and U.S. Senator Peter Welch,” said Al-Ameen Patterson, former chair of the AACC and current director of AACC voting rights initiative. This filing shows that the fight to end felony disenfranchisement happening here in Massachusetts as well as all over the country is not going unnoticed by members of Congress. It shows the power of collaboration between elected officials at the highest level of government and Black and Latinx incarcerated organizers from the very communities that have suffered the full force of mass disenfranchisement by way of mass incarceration. Furthermore, it shows the potential of what’s possible if we unlock the voices of over two million people behind the wall. Undoubtedly, we are imperfect people and our government has many tools for holding us accountable. But undoubtedly, the government is also imperfect, therefore all citizens must have a say at the ballot box to ensure accountability works both ways.”

“It is long past time for our national government to recognize the right to vote is inalienable for a legitimate democracy,” said Bruce Reilly, Voice of the Experienced (VOTE).

“The Inclusive Democracy Act is crucial to reaffirming voting as an unalienable right for all, including those with conviction histories. This bill champions inclusion and representation, which are vital for community reintegration and public safety. It ensures that the voices of those directly impacted by the criminal legal system shape federal policies, addressing re-entry challenges effectively. FICPFM wholeheartedly supports this legislation for a more equitable society,” said David Ayala, Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People & Families Movement.

“The Right to Vote is a BORN or BIRTH RIGHT that NEVER should be taken without due process, an act of sedition or treason, or willfully given up by a United States Born Citizen,” said Rahim Buford, Unheard Voices Outreach.

“Every American deserves a voice in their home land,” said Jeremiah Mungo, More Than Our Crimes.

“The National Council thanks Rep. Pressley for this bill which gives people involved in the criminal legal system a chance to have their voices heard and be recognized as parents, children, friends, and community members regardless of whether they are incarcerated,” said Catherine Sevcenko, The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

“As we somberly acknowledge the 50th year of mass incarceration in 2023, it is an honor to endorse The Inclusive Democracy Act . Intergenerational civic disengagement is the byproduct of Mass incarceration do to felony convictions. Civic disengagement has been so etched into the fabric of black and brown communities through the continual over policing, arresting, and convicting of black father’s, mother’s and children that the only way to begin to reformulate the building blocks of black civic engagement is to ensure that at the very root of causation, the engagement begins,” said James Jeter, Full Citizens Coalition.

“The voting rights of all confined citizens serving prison sentences, pretrial detainees, and so-called “ex-felons” must be counted. Representation is demanded. All voices count,” said Justin Allen, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ).

“Our democracy is stronger and more vibrant when everyone is a part of it. All people, regardless of whether they have a criminal conviction, should have the political power to shape their communities and lives. We applaud Representative Pressley for taking a meaningful step towards restoring the right to vote for the millions of Americans who have been denied a political voice simply because of a criminal conviction,” said Phi Nguyen, Demos.

“Felony disenfranchisement is a stain on American democracy. With over 4.6 million Americans barred from exercising their right to vote, disproportionately Black and Brown Americans, we are falling dramatically short of the promises on which this nation was built. We applaud Representative Pressley for introducing the Inclusive Democracy Act. Restoring voting rights to formerly and currently incarcerated individuals is a critical step forward to ensuring that every American can make their voice heard in our democracy. Stand Up America’s nearly 2 million members across the country have fought to restore voting rights to justice-impacted individuals in multiple states. Now we are ready to do whatever we can to push this legislation forward at the federal level. We look forward to the fight,” said Sunwoo Oh, Stand Up America.

“For far too long, Americans most impacted by the criminal legal system have been left without a voice. The Inclusive Democracy Act takes significant steps to help end the racist and discriminatory practice of felony disenfranchisement that grips communities of color. Common Cause applauds Representative Pressley for leading the way to ensure that all Americans regardless of criminal conviction have a say in the policies that shape their lives and those of their children,” said Keshia Morris Desir, Justice and Democracy Manager, Common Cause.

A copy of the bill text can be found here, and a summary can be found here. Footage of the press conference can be found here, and photos are here.

The Inclusive Democracy Act is informed by Rep. Pressley’s People’s Justice Guarantee, her comprehensive, decarceration-focused resolution that outlines a framework for a fair, equitable and just legal system.

Rep. Pressley has demonstrated a steadfast commitment to protecting and expanding the sacred right to vote and advance policies that center the dignity and humanity of all people, including those who are currently and formerly incarcerated.

  • In June 2023, Rep. Pressley and Rep. Rashida Tlaib introduced the Housing FIRST Act, bold legislation to help people who are formerly incarcerated and those with criminal histories access safe and stable housing.
  • In February 2022, Rep. Pressley, along with Whip Jim Clyburn and Congressman Mondaire Jones called on the Department of Justice to aggressively protect voting rights and fight against disenfranchisement, gerrymandering, voter purges, and other forms of voter suppression, vote dilution, and election subversion.
  • Rep. Pressley has repeatedly urged the U.S. Senate to abolish the filibuster and pass the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
  • In December 2021, Rep. Pressley unveiled the FIX Clemency Act, historic legislation to transform our nation’s broken clemency system and address the growing mass incarceration crisis. 
  • In March 2021, Rep. Pressley led her colleagues in re-introducing an amendment to lower the federal election voting age from 18-years-old to 16-years-old.
  • Rep. Pressley has called on the Massachusetts State Legislature to pass meaningful voting rights legislation that would boost voter turnout and expand access to the ballot box.
  • As a Boston City Councilor, Rep. Pressley advocated for expanded access to the ballot box, supporting legislation requiring ballots be available in multiple languages, and filing a home rule petition to allow for early voting in Boston’s preliminary and general elections.