In a groundbreaking year for progress on expanding the right to vote to justice-impacted people, states like Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas and Virginia have set an example of the transformative change that can happen through the will of the people.
This year, thanks to the tireless efforts of dedicated advocates and organizations, we’re witnessing a remarkable shift in the political landscape when it comes to expanding and protecting the right to vote for justice-impacted people.
Advocacy Based on Lived Experience (ABLE) – an organization dedicated to working to engage people in the democratic process – held several community events across Kentucky, allowing attendees and lawmakers to hold discussions on pertinent issues in their communities, regardless of their political affiliation. Participants frequently discussed state legislation that would restore the right to vote to over 160,000 Kentuckians who are disenfranchised due to their history with the criminal legal system. The Sentencing Project provided communications support to Kentucky advocates, ensuring that their efforts were covered in the press. We also held trainings and strategy discussions with grassroots advocates and connected them with national advocacy conversations.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed House Bill 4983 into law, which automatically registers people to vote upon their release from prison. The Sentencing Project worked closely with Michigan’s F.A.I.R. Voting Alliance, a group founded by formerly incarcerated voters, to advocate for the legislation and for robust implementation of the bill.
Earlier this year, Minnesota overturned the ban on voting rights for everyone on felony probation and parole, restoring the rights of over 46,000 Minnesotans – the largest voting rights expansion the state has seen in decades. Nicole D. Porter, Senior Director of Advocacy with The Sentencing Project, submitted testimony in support of the legislation and worked with a coalition of crime survivors to draft a guest column in the Minnesota Reformer that was shared with key stakeholders in Minnesota and national partners.
The Sentencing Project’s partner, Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (OLÉ), hosted ‘Unlock Civics, a voting engagement event for new citizens, and formerly incarcerated votes, whose voting rights were restored thanks to the passage of the New Mexico Voting Rights Act earlier this year.
Justin Allen of OLÉ (Organizers in the Land of Enchantment) at the Unlock Civics event in October 2023
Organizers hosted a rally in support of two bills that would guarantee ballot access for eligible incarcerated voters in Pennsylvania, provide voter information at certain correctional facilities, and direct the state to create a policy for civic education in correctional institutions. Representative Rick Krajewski, who introduced both measures, noted “Pennsylvania can care about our democracy and promoting real justice and safety.” The research bears this out, as many studies over the last few decades have shown that allowing returning citizens and currently incarcerated people to vote reduces rates of reoffending and helps justice-involved individuals to reintegrate into their communities. Nicole D. Porter and Bob Libal with The Sentencing Project were proud to join the Pennsylvania Black Caucus Legislative Day, where they facilitated and participated in a panel discussion on voting rights alongside Leigh Owens, Executive Director of the PENNfranchise project, and Rep. Krajewski.
The Sentencing Project’s local partners, including MOVE Texas and a local coalition, secured a major win when Dallas County implemented a jail-based polling site during the May and November elections this year. The coalition secured the support of the elections administration, the Dallas County Commissioners court, and effectively flipped Dallas County sheriff from opposing the policy to being its final key supporter.
Following the example of Harris County – the state’s largest county – Dallas County is now the second largest county in Texas to allow jail-based voting. Bob Libal with The Sentencing Project helps convene a statewide jail-based voting coalition, and advocates across Texas are now leveraging these important advancements to push for more jail-based voting locations as the 2024 elections approach.
Just days before the election, Virginia state leadership removed thousands of people who were formerly incarcerated and had their voting rights restored, from the rolls. Virginia is among the states with the most restrictive voting rights laws in the country, where people with felony convictions permanently lose their right to vote and can only have their rights restored by the governor. State officials acknowledged their “error” and voters showed up in a historic surge sending a clear message: people remain determined to exercise their right to vote, especially when that right is threatened. The Sentencing Project was proud to join with NoLef Turn and other national partners to call attention to this unjust action.
As we navigate the evolving political landscape, these inspiring developments serve as powerful reminders that by working together in pursuit of progress, we can manifest meaningful criminal legal reform that makes our country more humane, more just, and more democratic.