Pa. House bill could return vote to people serving time for felonies | Wednesday Morning Coffee
‘That piece of humanization can ensure we have a fully participatory democracy,’ Rep. Rick Krajewski, D-Philadelphia, said
(Canva image/The Alaska Beacon)
Voters across Pennsylvania will head to the polls during next Tuesday’s municipal primaries to cast their ballots for a host of consequential races — from Philadelphia mayor and Allegheny County executive to a special election for the state House of Representatives.
But from reasons ranging from fuzzy rules to confusion on whether they’re allowed to vote, incarcerated Pennsylvanians, many of whom are still eligible to vote, may not get a chance to participate on Election Day.
A Philadelphia lawmaker says he wants to change that.
On Tuesday, Democratic Rep. Rick Krajewski, joined by four of his House colleagues, began seeking legislative support for a pair of proposals that would allow all incarcerated people in the state to vote by absentee ballot.
That could end up including people convicted of felonies, who are currently barred by law from voting. Krajewski told the Capital-Star that he and his colleagues want to start a conversation around the thorny topic, arguing that it could be a tool to keep people from offending again.
“The data shows that can help them, and that piece of humanization can ensure we have a fully participatory democracy,” he said. “We also know that the people who are most impacted by this are Black, brown, and in poverty. We want to push for change.”
Under current state law, incarcerated people who are awaiting trial; people convicted of a misdemeanor; people who have been, or will be, released from prison or a halfway house by the time of the next election; people currently on probation or parole, and people who are under house arrest, all are eligible to vote.
For that cohort, “we want to do what people already have the right to do,” Krajewski told the Capital-Star.
In a memo seeking support for their proposal, Krajewski and his fellow lawmakers noted that as many as 25,000 people now serving time in Pennsylvania’s county jails may be barred from voting.
That’s because those county lock-ups “do not have a written policy regarding voting in jail, resulting in de facto disenfranchisement,” Krajewski and his colleagues wrote of what they described as a “pervasive” issue.
In addition to those serving time for a felony conviction, people who have been convicted of election law violations within the four years prior to an election, also are barred from voting, according to the state Department of Corrections.
Krajewski said he’d be open to a discussion on restoring voting rights to such offenders.
Access to the ballot box is not an isolated problem. Across the country, incarcerated people face obstacles to voting — even when they are legally allowed to do so.
“Incarcerated people are often left to fend for themselves to find the information they need to exercise their freedom to vote. Without internet access, voters in jail must rely on the prison’s administration to provide paper registration forms or vote-by-mail applications, which can get stuck in bureaucratic delays or discarded by uninformed prison staff,” an August 2022 report by the Campaign Legal Center concluded.
“Even if a voter in jail gains access to these forms, they may lack the necessary identification to register or vote and may find their forms stuck in the jail’s mail processing department, causing them to miss election deadlines,” the report’s author, Matthew Peljovich, wrote. “Additionally, many states that require an excuse to vote by mail do not count being incarcerated as a valid excuse.”
As part of their proposal, Krajewski and his colleagues want to require the Pennsylvania Department of State, which has oversight of elections, to “create a uniform policy for civic education in correctional institutions and to provide correctional institutions with information pertaining to voter registration, absentee ballots and eligibility requirements, as well as all necessary forms and training.”
Lawmakers will hold a public forum on the proposal on May 23 at 3 p.m. in Room 515 of the Irvis Office Building in the Capitol complex.
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