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Pressley and Welch unveil Inclusive Democracy Act

A historic leap toward voting rights for incarcerated citizens

Thea Sweet

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and Vermont Sen. Peter Welch have introduced the Inclusive Democracy Act, a legislative breakthrough that would end felony disenfranchisement in federal elections by guaranteeing the right to vote for incarcerated citizens.

The groundbreaking effort comes at a time when an estimated 4.6 million citizens, disproportionately from Black and brown communities, are denied voting rights due to criminal convictions.

The unveiling of the bill last week took place at a press conference where Pressley and Welch, along with Danielle Lang, senior director of voting rights at Campaign Legal Center, emphasized the urgency of the issue.

“The crisis of mass incarceration has ravaged our communities, destabilized families, and exacerbated generational trauma — a criminal legal system that disproportionately criminalizes Black and brown folks and denies us our basic dignity and humanity, a precise, coordinated and targeted assault on our voting rights that is meant to exclude these very communities from participating in our democracy,” Pressley stated.

These disparities didn’t happen overnight. They’re the result of decades of precise, intentional and legislative policy violence.

The legacy of systemic racism and discriminatory practices has perpetuated a cycle of over-policing, harsh sentencing and unequal treatment within the criminal justice system, research has shown. Black individuals are disproportionately targeted, arrested and sentenced to longer prison terms compared to their white counterparts for similar offenses, according to a 2021 report, “Racial and Ethnic Disparities Throughout the Criminal Legal System.”

The era of mass incarceration beginning in 1970 laid the groundwork for an unprecedented increase in the nation’s prison population. During this period, deliberate and punitive policy measures orchestrated by people in power fueled the growth. The perpetual patterns of racial targeting since America’s founding has led to a staggering overrepresentation of Black Americans in the prison population, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.

According to the NAACP, 32% of the U.S. general population is represented by Black and Hispanic people, while 56% of the U.S. incarcerated population is represented by Black and Hispanic people.

This historical context is crucial in understanding the structural injustices that continue to plague the system today, including but not limited to voting rights.

“This bill is all about helping disenfranchised voters who have been systemically robbed of their right to participate in our democratic process,” Welch said.

He expressed commitment to modernizing the Voting Rights Act and opposing outdated laws reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.

“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,” Welch said.

The Inclusive Democracy Act addresses a historical injustice rooted in the creation of law-enforcing institutions as a tool of subordination and a continuation of discriminatory Jim Crow laws that stripped away rights, particularly from Black communities.

“We are still in the civil rights movement,” Pressley declared at the press conference. “And Jim Crow is not behind us. Jim Crow is not behind us when state legislators and extremist courts act daily to disenfranchise us and to silence our votes. Jim Crow is not behind us when bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act are not the law of the land. And Jim Crow is not behind us when the former occupant of the White House can lead a violent insurrection and still run for president while nearly 5 million citizens can have a criminal record and not even cast a ballot.”

The bill promises to guarantee not just the right to vote in theory, but in practice. It would require that individuals with past convictions receive notice that they have the right to vote and retain that right to vote, and it would ensure that all eligible individuals can effectively participate in the democratic process.

That is not true today, even for eligible individuals. Many people behind bars who have not been convicted of any crime are awaiting trial, but have no meaningful way to participate on election day. Despite the fact that by law individuals are presumed innocent until found guilty, often the state does not provide the tools to vote, access to voting by mail, or access to voter registration, thus impeding a person’s ability to participate in elections.

“Felony disenfranchisement is one the biggest remaining obstacles to true democracy in America,” said Lang. “While nearly 5 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, almost 18 million more may be effectively disenfranchised because of the state patchwork of confusing laws, onerous paperwork, requirements and fear of being prosecuted. And that’s to say nothing of the eligible voters incarcerated in county jails who haven’t even been convicted of a crime but are unable to participate in our democracy because of the everyday barriers posed by incarceration.”

The push for new legislation hits home for Pressley, as someone whose family has been directly impacted by mass incarceration.

“Growing up, my father, Martin, was absent for most of my formative years because his addiction was criminalized,” Pressley said. “This was incredibly destabilizing for our family. He was treated as if he was disposable, and he was alienated from our society.”

Pressley’s personal experience is no anomaly, especially among Black Americans.

“While I am proud to share that my father Martin is healthy and he is thriving, and he has gone on to make great contributions to society as an accomplished author and also as a professor of journalism,” Pressley said, “I am not proud that those contributions had to be delayed because our criminal legal system is focused more on replicating hurt and harm instead of rehabilitating productive members of democracy.”

The legislation holds the promise of transforming democracy and the voting landscape. States like Vermont and Maine have already granted voting rights to incarcerated individuals.

The Inclusive Democracy Act has gained endorsement from organizations such as the Prison Policy Initiative, The Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Popular Democracy, the Black Voters Matter Fund and more.

ayanna pressley, Inclusive Democracy Act, mass incarceration, Sen. Peter Welch, voting rights