In Massachusetts, people with felony convictions can already vote once they are released from prison. But Washington wanted to take this further, restoring the lost voting rights to people imprisoned on felony convictions. In 2016, he and other members of the Emancipation Initiative started a program in Massachusetts called #DonateYourVote, through which people on the outside vote on behalf of people disenfranchised in prison.
Washington can’t vote because he is incarcerated on a felony conviction for first-degree homicide and armed robbery, for which he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Rachel Corey, an organizer with the group, voted on his behalf in the 2018 midterm election, and more than 140 others in Massachusetts agreed to cast a ballot on behalf of an incarcerated person not eligible to vote, she said. In their sign-up sheets, many of those in prison wrote heartfelt explanations of what the right to vote meant to them. Alexander Bolling, who is incarcerated in Massachusetts, wrote that for him, as a black American, voting means “making the most of an opportunity that past generations have fought and died for.”
Alysé Bigger, who works as a program manager for a nonprofit in Boston, has twice “donated” her entire ballot to a man who is incarcerated on a felony conviction. She pointed out in an interview that the man is directly affected by the criminal-justice system. As a result, she felt he should be responsible for choosing officials “more than I should right now.”
In Massachusetts, a Democratic state senator introduced a proposal this year to place a constitutional amendment on the state ballot that would have restored the right to vote to people incarcerated on felony convictions. But a committee recommended in April that it not proceed. Washington and other activists are now hoping to gather signatures this fall to place a proposed amendment on the 2022 ballot through a citizen-initiated process.
Washington’s campaign comes as the public has recently become more aware of the consequences of decades of mass incarceration, and more lawmakers nationwide have shifted their focus from punishment to rehabilitation. Efforts to push for full enfranchisement, as Washington has done, have been initiated in other states too. During last year’s U.S. prison strike, organizers posted social-media posts that were widely shared, and made universal prisoner suffrage a key demand. Initially, this was viewed as one of the more radical asks, said Amani Sawari, who served as the spokesperson for the strike. Eventually, it became a separate movement, as prisoners saw voting rights as the first step to having “political power over getting all the other demands”—including improved prison conditions—“met.”
Still, it’s taken a while for even post-incarceration enfranchisement to get on liberal legislators’ agendas, Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, told me. That’s gradually changing. In 2019 alone, state lawmakers introduced proposals in at least 16 states and Washington, D.C., to expand, study, or facilitate voting for people with felony convictions. In some places, this would apply to people still in prison. So far, though, the most significant action has been on proposals to expand voting for people who have been released from prison: Within the last year, Nevada, Colorado, and Florida have expanded voting rights for this group in some capacity. In 2018, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring voting rights to people on parole, though the change hasn’t been codified.