Amendment to election law would allow prisoner registration

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By KYLE DAVIDSON
Capital News Service

LANSING — A recently proposed change to Michigan election law could be a game changer for incarcerated communities, advocates say.

It removes language that prevents incarcerated individuals from registering to vote as well as restrictions as to when they can register.

While state law already allows inmates to register to vote upon release, this new bill would expand voting rights to those still serving their sentence. If the amendment is signed into law, Michigan would join Maine, Vermont and Washington D.C. in allowing people to vote while incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

The bill was recently introduced by Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing. It has 10 Democrat cosponsors, including Reps. Abraham Aiyash of Hamtramck, Kyra Harris Bolden of Southfield, Brenda Carter of Pontiac, Mary Cavanagh of Redford, Kara Hope of  Holt, Cynthia Johnson of Detroit, Cynthia Neeley of Flint, Karen Whitsett of Detroit, Tenisha Yancey of Harper Woods and Stephanie Young of Detroit.

The bill is bigger than giving prisoners the right to vote, said Johnson, one of the cosponsors.

Many Black men are in prison for crimes that others commit and don’t get the same amount of time, Johnson said. There are others who are in prison for petty crimes and crimes they did not commit, she said. 

“All people should have the opportunity to vote because all legislation does not preclude those individuals… they still are citizens,” Johnson said.

Communities of color have borne the brunt of the criminal justice system through issues of over policing and criminalization through campaigns like the war on drugs, said Kevin Harris, the board president and chair for Michigan Liberation, a grassroots organization focused on criminal justice reform. 

People of color in Michigan are incarcerated at higher rates than whites, according to the Prison Policy Initiative, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization focused on criminal justice reform. There are 2,169 incarcerated Black people out of every 100,000 Black residents, but only 374 out of every 100,000 white residents. 

“As a former parole and probation agent, also as a person who worked inside the prison as a corrections officer, I realize how thin that line is,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of people who are in prison. If it were not for God and for grace, I could be there. And every single one of us practically could be on the other side.”

If the bill makes its way through the Legislature, it would be a game changer, said Harris, who was previously incarcerated for 15 years. 

“When you’re in the Department of Corrections, you’re totally stripped of all dignity and humanity as a person. To be able to say that you have a vote, you have a say in something connected with the community, I think it would be extremely empowering for those individuals,” Harris said.

Incarcerated individuals are not disconnected, and often leave families, friends and communities behind, Anthony said. By allowing prisoners to vote, they can maintain a connection to their home community.

“Your voice is no less important, no less powerful regardless of where you find yourself, be it behind bars or in your community,” Anthony said.

While the bill received support from numerous other house Democrats, Johnson said she doesn’t expect it to pass through the majority Republican Elections and Ethics Committee.

However, Anthony remains hopeful the bill could receive bipartisan support.

“I think that we have reached a point that individuals on both sides of the aisle and from different walks of life see the value in diverse communities lifting up their voices,” Anthony said.

The bill was referred to the Committee on Elections and Ethics on Sept. 23.  Committee Chair Ann Bollin, R-Brighton Township, and Majority Vice Chair Pauline Wendzel, R-Coloma, could not be reached for comment.