Democratic lawmakers unveil bill to give people in US prisons right to vote

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democratic U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley and U.S. Senator Peter Welch on Wednesday unveiled a bill that if passed would grant the right to vote nationwide to people who had been in prison or were currently in prison.

“The right to vote is sacred in America and it’s essential to citizenship, and all citizens deserve a voice in our democracy,” Pressley told reporters.

The bill is unlikely to advance in the divided Congress, where Republicans narrowly control the House of Representatives and Democrats control the Senate. The lawmakers acknowledged the headwinds to the legislation.

“There is resistance. We know that,” Welch said.

Pressley referred to her family’s history with the criminal justice system, mentioning that while she was growing up, her father had addiction issues and had been incarcerated before going on to become an author and professor.

Welch noted that his state of Vermont was one of the few places in the country where people do not lose the right to vote, even when they are incarcerated, along with Maine and Washington, D.C.

The laws surrounding voting and incarceration are a patchwork across the U.S., though in recent years, some states have moved to loosen prohibitions on voting for people who have been incarcerated or who are currently serving a prison sentence.

States may bar voting for people who are currently in prison, for a period after release, for certain crimes, or require an additional waiting period, a governor’s pardon, or additional actions such as the payment of a fine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Nearly 5 million people in the U.S. are directly affected by these policies, Pressley said, adding that Black Americans were disproportionately affected.

The United States is the country with the highest number and the second-highest rate of people in prison in the world, according to the National Institute of Corrections. Black Americans are imprisoned at five times the rate of white Americans, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

(Reporting by Makini Brice; Editing by Bill Berkrot)