Inspired in part by a proposal from high school student Nicholas Stauffer-Mason, D.C. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) introduced the D.C. Voting Rights Notification Act of 2016, which would require Washington, D.C., to notify released felons of their reinstated right to vote, on April 5.
The act proposes mandating that the Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs, which provides reintegration support for previously incarcerated residents, provide felons who have completed their sentences with oral and written notification of their ability to vote.
D.C., along with 38 states, renews incarcerated citizens’ right to vote upon their release. In other states, felons can be permanently disenfranchised or may be required to apply for voting rights.
In order to be implemented, the bill must be voted on by the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary before it moves to the full council for approval.
Evans said it is common for ex-offenders not to vote, since they are often unaware that their right is restored upon release.
“The District does not allow those incarcerated of a felony to participate in elections while serving their sentence. We do, however, automatically restore that right the moment that the person completes their sentence,” Evans wrote in an email to The Hoya. “A number of District residents with a felony conviction are not aware of the fact that, as ex-offenders, they may participate in the Democratic process.”
According to Communication, Culture, and Technology graduate program associate professor of Political Science Diana Owen, the bill marks a positive step toward combatting voter disenfranchisement, but it is hard to predict its future impact.
“The bill’s goal is admirable, as it is likely that many people who have been incarcerated for felonies are not aware that their citizenship rights will be reinstated in the District of Columbia after their release,” Owen wrote in an email to The Hoya. “It is difficult to tell how much influence the bill will have on voter involvement in future elections, but it takes an important stand on behalf of democratic governance.”
Stauffer-Mason, a student at the District’s School Without Walls High School, completed a paper last fall regarding the issue of voter eligibility as part of his senior project. He decided to send the proposal to the D.C. Council in March in the hopes of addressing voter disenfranchisement in the District.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Stauffer-Mason said to the Washington City Paper. “I didn’t know I could write laws. I’ve never done that before.”
Chair of the Committee on Education David Grosso (D-At Large) contacted Stauffer-Mason a week later to set up a meeting. Before Grosso and Stauffer-Mason had the chance to meet, Evans expressed his interest in proposing a bill on the topic and Grosso decided to co-sponsor.
According to Grosso, the bill fosters a much-needed sentiment of civic engagement, which supports ex-felon reintegration.
“I think the work he did is great and that encouraging our returning citizens to be involved civically and through elections is a great way to help them reengage with society,” Grosso wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Evans lauded Stauffer-Mason for his detailed research on the topic and for bringing the issue to the attention of the council.
“Nicholas did great research on this topic and made me aware of this issue. He even provided my office with draft language for this bill,” Evans wrote. “It is an honor to introduce this bill, and I hope that Nicholas continues his civic engagement and his great work.”
Grosso expressed his support for students involved in politics and emphasized his goal to encourage increased participation from younger citizens.
“I fully support high school students—and all students—contributing to politics in as many ways as possible,” Grosso wrote. “I support (and co-introduced a bill) to lower the voting age in D.C. to 16, I have done voter registration drives with students and I welcome students to my hearings and my office. As the Chairperson of the Committee on Education I am very interested in greater civic engagement by students.”
According to Owen, Stauffer-Mason’s contribution to politics demonstrates the importance of political engagement and the impact students can have on public service.
“It demonstrates the importance of civic education that gives young people the knowledge and skills that encourage them to take part in the political world,” Owen wrote. “High school students have accomplished a range of civic achievements from getting towns to create parks, to getting a plastic bag tax passed to promote reusable bags, to getting government officials to take action against cyber bullying.”
Although the process of notifying former felons of their reinstated right to vote is complex and potentially difficult to implement, Owen said the bill’s passage is plausible.
“Some may argue that the notification process will be difficult to implement and involve administrative costs,” Owen wrote. “However, the law reinstating citizenship rights is in place, and the bill has the support of a powerful member of the DC council in Jack Evans, which could work in favor of it passing.”