Photos by Mac Smiff
Over 12,000 people’s right to vote would be restored.
On Thursday, legislators and advocates announced that a bill will be introduced in 2022 to guarantee the right to vote for all incarcerated citizens of voting age in Oregon. Currently, some 12,548 citizens serving time for felony offenses are stripped of that right, as of March 2021, according to a legislative analysis.
If the bill passes, Oregon will join Maine and Vermont as the only states not to deny the right to vote for incarcerated people with felony convictions.
A similar reform was proposed in 2021 but did not pass. Unlike that bill, this one requires no state funding. (There was a request by the Oregon Department of Corrections to hire two positions to implement the bill, according to legislators championing the reform.)
The advocacy group Next Up is now leading a letter writing campaign to raise awareness about the 2022 bill within Oregon’s prisons, as well as text and phone banking efforts to lobby more legislators in support.
In Oregon, the policy of disenfranchising incarcerated people dates back to Oregon’s founding as a white-only colony. Today, the policy continues to disproportionately impact Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities, who are disproportionately incarcerated in the state. A 2021 report produced by Next Up and the advocacy group Oregon Justice Resource Center found that Black people in Oregon are over six times more likely to be incarcerated than white Oregonians.
This is “a legacy of exclusionary laws which were created to establish a white-only state,” writes the Oregon Justice Resource Center (OJRC). “There is a clear link between over-incarceration and disenfranchisement of communities of color.”
“As a formerly incarcerated person, I know that when someone is involved in the processes which affect their communities, it makes them truly feel a part of that community,” said Anthony Pickens, Paralegal/Legal Assistant with OJRC. “And, when we feel a part of something, we are more inclined to care about and nurture that community.”
The disenfranchisement of incarcerated voters is not the only way mass incarceration strips over-policed communities of their political power. For example, a system of “prison gerrymandering” counts incarcerated people toward the total population — and therefore political representation — of the districts where they are incarcerated, rather than their home districts. This transfers political power out of communities of color and into districts that house prisons.
“Addressing prison gerrymandering is an issue we’re going to have to tackle in Oregon very soon,” Zach Wilson, Policy Director of OJRC, told WOHM. “Our hope is that we see this pass, and then we can also turn our attention to prison gerrymandering.”
According to the Prison Gerrymandering Project, 10 states and hundreds of municipalities have put an end to this practice. Legislation to end the practice in Oregon did not pass in 2019 and no municipality in the state has yet to take real action, according to the Prison Gerrymandering Project.