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April 01, 2005

Getting the Vote for Prisoners in Washington, D.C.: A Journey from Civil Rights to Human Rights

by Charles Sullivan

Angered by the death of Martin Luther King Jr., and inspired by his example, in 1968 I attended a meeting of civil rights leaders planning a commemoration of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, where four children had been brutally killed. Since white clergymen rarely volunteered to participate, the leaders asked me to speak. That speech marked my baptism in the fight for civil rights.

My activism soon flourished, and my wife and I were jailed several times while protesting. We experienced inhuman prison conditions firsthand. As a result, in 1971 we started CURE, a prison reform organization, in Texas. By 1985 we had expanded nationally and moved our headquarters to Washington, D.C.

Revisiting Birmingham many years later, I chanced upon the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and picked up a handout. It introduced me to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a “bill of rights for the world.” I immediately recognized that many of its articles related to prisoners. Article 21(1), “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives,” particularly caught my attention. The universal suffrage advocated therein meant that everyone, including prisoners, should have the right to vote! Until then, I had believed that felons should not be allowed to vote until they had completed their sentences. In fact, one of CURE’s efforts in Texas helped ex-felons win the right to vote. But if voting was an inherent human right, a criminal conviction should not restrict it.

CURE turned its attention to this issue, especially within Washington, D.C., its adopted home. Like every state except for Vermont and Maine, Washington, D.C., does not have universal suffrage for prisoners: those serving a felony cannot vote. To change the policy, I testified regularly before the District’s Board of Elections and Ethics and the City Council. As a result, last year CURE supervised a registration and voting drive for eligible prisoners in the two jails in the District. Working with jail chaplains and volunteers, we registered hundreds of pretrial detainees and prisoners serving misdemeanors. Although we wanted to have polling places inside the jails, we had to settle for in-person absentee voting. We hand-delivered the ballots ourselves because jail officials can withhold mail. Our project would have been more successful if all prisoners could have voted, but this was an acceptable first step.

We continue to work with the elections board to register all prisoners upon their release, but many inmates are leery. A felony conviction can have a chilling effect on voter registration. Inmates say, “Why should I exercise my right to vote and risk getting into trouble when I’m in trouble enough as it is!” They are also aware that—as statistics confirm—prisoner disenfranchisement has an overwhelming racist and class impact. They say, “You are guilty until proven rich!”

Nevertheless, voting can be a transformative event. I’ve seen this on the faces of prisoners after they voted and proudly placed the “I voted” sticker on their uniforms.

Universal suffrage, as espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has been called a “revolution within a revolution.” Can you think of a more appropriate city than Washington, D.C., to lead this revolution?

Charles Sullivan

Charles Sullivan is the executive director of CURE, Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.