The Connecticut Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights heard testimony in favor of expanding voting rights to currently incarcerated individuals during a multi-hour hearing at the Legislative Office Building Thursday.
The civil rights group heard from advocates, academic experts and formerly incarcerated people on the impact of disenfranchising policies on imprisoned populations disproportionately composed of Black and brown residents.
Speakers generally praised recent policy changes adopted by Connecticut legislators, which have allowed otherwise eligible voters to cast ballots once they are released from prison. The change replaced a law that had previously required them to first complete their parole sentence.
However, Nicole Porter, senior advocacy director of The Sentencing Project, said the state was in a good position to extend voting rights to currently incarcerated people.
“I would call Connecticut an opportunity state, a state where there’s an opportunity to push the envelope, to end felony disenfranchisement outright,” Porter said. “That’s incredibly important given where the United States is as an outlier in terms of disenfranchising people who are sentenced to prison.”
Most U.S. states prohibit voting by incarcerated residents. Here in Connecticut, unsentenced individuals are permitted to vote in the state’s jails. Only Maine and Vermont allow voting by sentenced residents in state prisons. Porter told Thursday’s panel the policies were not particularly controversial in those states.
James Jeter, co-director of the Full Citizens Coalition, began his presentation to the group by highlighting how Connecticut’s election laws have historically disenfranchised Black voters.
“I start here, not because I think this disenfranchisement is solely a Black issue, but if you look at the numbers of those who are in our prison system, then it looks highly colored,” Jeter said. “It’s a Black and brown issue just because of the disparate numbers.”
As of this year, 6,892 people were disenfranchised due to felony convictions in Connecticut, according to statistics presented by Christina Rivers, an associate political science professor at DePaul University. About 44% of those people were Black and 28% were Latinx, she said. As of last year, Connecticut’s overall population was 78% white, 13% Black and 18% Latinx, Rivers said.
“This almost becomes a form of voter suppression,” Rivers said of preventing incarcerated people from voting. “Perhaps not intentional, but in effect.”
Connecticut legislators have considered but declined to pass bills allowing sentenced voters to cast ballots from prison.
The Government Administration and Elections Committee raised one such bill for a public hearing in March. The hearing prompted testimony on both sides of the issue, with opponents often arguing that offenders had forfeited their rights to vote when they broke the law.
“Rewarding someone who is incarcerated with voting rights is one more slap in the face to law abiding citizens while the criminal system is becoming less and less punitive,” resident Debbie Esposito wrote in March.
Meanwhile, Secretary of the State Stephanie Thomas, Connecticut’s chief election official, focused on logistical concerns in her own testimony submitted to the legislative committee. The Department of Correction already faced challenges in administering absentee ballots to unsentenced incarcerated individuals, she said.
“While the merits of this bill are well-intended, I first urge you to address the many practical challenges currently eligible incarcerated people face when attempting to cast a ballot,” Thomas wrote in March. “We are ready and willing to work with interested parties to provide solutions to some of these issues which would also serve as the foundation of a broader program.”
On Thursday, Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, told the civil rights panel that legislators could choose to prioritize making voting more feasible from state prisons.
“The political will just doesn’t exist yet,” Elliott, a proponent of the policy, said. “I think that by continuing to have these conversations we can ultimately get there and the arguments against will continue to fade away.”