State Rep. Carol Kazeem (D-Delaware) speaks during a rally in support of voting rights for incarcerated Pennsylvanians at the Capitol on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023 (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).
With the general election weeks away, lawmakers and advocates are calling for legislation to better inform incarcerated Pennsylvanians about their right to vote and permit them to vote via absentee ballot.
Supporters of House Bill 1756 and its counterpart House Bill 1757 — bills that would permit all incarcerated individuals to vote in Pennsylvania, provide voter information to correctional facilities, and direct the Department of State to create a “uniform policy for civic education” in correctional institutions — gathered on the Capitol steps Wednesday, hoping to garner support for the legislation currently before the House State Government Committee.
The bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Rick Krajewski (D-Philadelphia) said that the legislation is needed to prevent “de-facto disenfranchisement.”
“This process will include dissemination of registration forms, ballot applications and ballots, civic education for voters to learn how to cast their vote, and designated staff to handle the collection and return of ballots. We will also be collecting data from each facility to oversee the effectiveness of their procedures,” Krajewski said.
As long as they have been citizens for at least one month before the next election and will be at least 18 years of age on election day, many incarcerated individuals are currently allowed to vote in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The list includes pretrial detainees, convicted misdemeanants, individuals who have been released (or will be released by the date of the next election) from a correctional facility or halfway house upon completion of their term of incarceration for conviction of a misdemeanor or a felony, individuals who are on probation or released on parole, and individuals who are under house arrest, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
The problem, lawmakers said, is that many eligible individuals don’t know it.
“If you can empower and engage folks on the inside, who are at one of their lowest moments, and get them to engage in our democracy — What happens when they come home?” state Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia) asked. “What kind of ambassadors, what kind of advocates are they going to be? Say: ‘Look, I voted, and I was on the inside, what’s your excuse?’”
Rabb, who said supporting the bill was “a no-brainer” for him, called the pair of bills “super voter” bills for their ability to empower more Pennsylvanians to cast their votes on election day.
“Having people closest to the pain informed the policy — that will allow for justice for all,” Rabb said.
State Rep. Aerion Abney, a Democrat representing Allegheny County, echoed Rabb’s comments about the potential impact of the legislation.
“If you are someone who is extremely passionate about protecting our democracy, and expanding access to the ballot and voting rights, then this bill is for you,” state Rep. Aerion Abney (D-Allegheny) said. “If you are someone that cares about criminal justice reform, and protecting the rights of the people who are in our county jails, this bill is also for you as well.”
The rally to support the bills comes just a day after students from across the commonwealth gathered at the Capitol for another voting-related cause, urging lawmakers to consider two bills that would end closed primary elections in Pennsylvania and bring more voters to the polls on election day.
The flurry of activity around voting rights is also happening as the Legislature quibbles over when Pennsylvania’s 2024 presidential primary should be held, as the current April 23 date conflicts with Passover.
“We have the opportunity to rewrite history,” Krajewski said. “Pennsylvania has historically been one of the worst states in our country when it comes to our carceral system. While we have the wind behind our backs, while we have this majority, we must use this political moment to say another world is possible, that Pennsylvania can be a state that believes everyone deserves a second chance, that Pennsylvania can care about our democracy and promoting real justice and safety.”
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