A bill that would allow inmates of prisons and jails in Oregon to vote in elections moved on Thursday toward a Senate floor vote with the approval of the judiciary committee, with Republican members voting against.
The action on the bill in the Democratic-dominated Oregon Legislature underscores how blue states are taking steps to expand voter access while red states are moving in the opposite direction.
Only two other states — Maine and Vermont — and Washington, D.C., allow convicted people to vote while still incarcerated, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
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According to the NCSL, felons lose their voting rights in 22 states only while incarcerated and receive automatic restoration upon release. Felons in 15 states lose their rights during incarceration and typically also while on parole or probation. In 11 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, require a governor’s pardon for the rights to be restored or require additional waiting periods or actions.
The five members of the Oregon Senate's judiciary committee — three Democrats and two Republicans — argued for and against the measure and then voted along party lines.
Sen. Dennis Linthicum, a Republican from the southern Oregon town of Klamath Falls, said some of the prisoners who would be afforded voting rights under the measure have been convicted of murder, assault, rape and human trafficking.
"All of these categories of felony convicts, and we’re pretending that they will be good citizens who will be able to exercise their right to vote," Linthicum said, predicting that votes would be sold for packs of cigarettes behind bars.
"This isn’t a normal free society with debate clubs," he said. "And so, I think restoration of all these individuals' rights after they serve their time is appropriate — that’s the way it exists in today’s law."
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Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat who chairs the committee and is a prosecutor, said studies show that individuals who have become engaged in civic activities in prison are less apt to commit more crimes after their release.
"What I have come away with is that we will get better success by incentivizing individuals, and what better way to ensure that people are engaging in the public process than by giving them the right as a citizen of their state and their country to be able to vote?" he said.
Who prisoners vote for might be a surprise, Prozanski said.
A mock presidential election was held in the state penitentiary, with former President Donald Trump winning overwhelmingly, said Sen. James Manning, a Democrat from the university town of Eugene and a former police officer. He called the result "kind of amazing."
The three-to-two vote in favor of the bill sends it to the ways and means committee before a vote on the Senate floor. If the Senate passes it, it would go to the House for consideration.