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State lawmakers may soon debate whether prison inmates doing time for serious felony convictions should have the right to vote in Connecticut elections.

A bill filed in the Government Administration and Elections Committee by Rep. David Michel, D-Stamford, would restore the right to vote for people on parole and those incarcerated as a result of certain felonies. At the moment, the bill does not specify which felonies. Michel said that’s because he’s looking to have a debate.

“When somebody is incarcerated for being a murderer, should they have the right to vote? That’s a question I don’t have an answer for,” Michel said during a phone interview Thursday. In general, Michel says he favors restoring the right to vote to people in prison.

a green buttton that says support and red button that says oppose

Under current state law, residents serving time for misdemeanors and people held in jail awaiting trial retain their right to vote. Karen Martucci, a spokeswoman for the Correction Department, said it is difficult for the agency to track how many votes are cast from correctional facilities because eligible inmates can request absentee ballots by mail. However, she said agency staff assisted 44 inmates in casting ballots during the 2020 election.

Michel, who moved to the United States from France in his early teens, said barring felons from voting raises a philosophical question.

“What is the definition of being an American citizen? Normally, if you’re American, you have the right to vote,” he said. “Are we removing the citizenship for people who are punished for a crime they committed? I think not. I think they’re still Americans.”

The bill would also restore voting rights to parolees. Michel expects this provision to be less controversial.

“I think parolees, by definition, are released into society under the assumption that they will not break the law,” he said. “On parole, if you break the law, you go back, right? If they’re trusted to be back in society, why don’t they have the right to vote?”

Others feel that people convicted of felonies should serve the entirety of their sentences before the state restores their right to cast a ballot. One of the committee’s ranking Republican members, Rep. Gale Mastrofrancesco, R-Wolcott, opposed both provisions of the bill, saying that parolees are still doing time despite their release from prison.

“I truly believe if you committed a crime you need to pay your debt to society before you’re able to get those voting rights restored. I don’t believe it’s a harsh punishment, but I believe it’s an important one and it gives people an incentive to do the right thing,” Mastrofrancesco said during a phone interview Thursday.

Both concepts were raised separately for consideration in 2019. That year, the Government Administration and Elections Committee approved a bill restoring voting rights to parolees but the proposal was never raised in the House for a vote. During the same session, a bill on voting rights for inmates died in committee.

In the past, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s top elections official, has backed efforts to let parolees vote. On Thursday, her communications director Gabe Rosenberg said the proposal simplifies state law, which already permits people on probation to vote.

“It’s actually super confusing for everybody involved. The people themselves and the registrars are trying to figure out who’s allowed and who isn’t. At the end of the day, it probably results in people who are eligible to vote, not registering because they think they’re not,” Rosenberg said.

Broadening voting rights in prisons, meanwhile, would exacerbate some existing logistical challenges posed by voting from correctional facilities. It is difficult to coordinate voting by mail when prison inmates can be frequently transferred from facility to facility. As a result they may be residing in a different town when they cast a ballot than they were when they requested one.

During public hearing testimony in 2019, Merrill expressed apprehension over the bill. It may be difficult to supervise an election where voting occurs in a prison and inmates may have difficulty requesting and returning absentee ballots within the time allowed by state law, she said. Incarcerated voters could also be subject to intimidation, Merrill said. 

“I have real concerns as to the administration of an election that includes incarcerated voters,” she said

There’s also the possibility of some movement on laws adjacent to inmate voting rights as a result of the long standing issue of prison gerrymandering.

Connecticut and other states count inmates as residents of the town where they are incarcerated rather than the town where they lived prior to going to prison. Opponents say the practice has disenfranchised Black and brown voters by boosting the representation of predominantly white towns with prisons—say Somers or Enfield—while reducing the political influence of cities.

In 2018, the NAACP sued the state of Connecticut in an effort to stop the practice but the group withdrew the lawsuit and is awaiting this year’s redistricting process. Any change in state law regarding where inmates are counted, would impact the law regarding which town their votes are cast in.