A new ally has emerged for the state’s prison inmates — the largely upper middle class women who comprise the Hawaii chapter of the League of Women Voters.

Best known for their role moderating debates and lobbying for improved election procedures, the famously nonpartisan group is backing Senate Bill 1503, which would give the 5,400 jail and prison inmates who are residents of Hawaii the right to vote through absentee ballot.

That includes extending the ballot to 1,450 inmates held in a for-profit private prison, Saguaro Correctional Center, in Eloy, Arizona, about 60 miles from Tucson.

The law would mark a major change — typically people who are incarcerated lose both their freedom and their right to vote. Only two other states, Maine and Vermont, now allow felons to vote while incarcerated.

“We’re committed to this to protect the right to vote,” said Janet Mason, co-chair of the League’s legislative committee. “How could we have overlooked these citizens for so many years?”

Supporters concede the law likely won’t pass the session, but it’s opened up discussion on what they consider an important element of prison reform.

Saguaro Correctional Center, Eloy, Arizona patrol. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Senate Bill 1503 would grant 5,400 felons currently in prison, including 1,450 Hawaii inmates being held at the private Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, the right to vote. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Laurie Tomchak, head of the group’s legislative committee, told lawmakers that the League endorsed the bill.

“We believe this measure will perfect one of the cherished goals of democracy: Universal suffrage,” she wrote.

She said that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who make up about half the inmate population, have been disproportionately and negatively affected by laws restricting their access to the ballot box.

“If Hawaii’s incarcerated people are allowed to vote, it would increase the state’s low voting rate, and perhaps influence the high rate of incarceration here in the islands,” Tomchak wrote.

The impetus for the bill comes amid a growing national movement to restore voting rights to prisoners and ex-offenders.

Janet Mason, co-chair of the League 0f Women Voters legislative committee, believes that while the bill may not pass this year it will eventually be approved. 

The Hawaii measure, sponsored in the House by Rep. Richard Creagan and in the Senate by Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, has made some progress in the Senate. It has been approved by the Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for the Judiciary or Ways and Means committees. A companion bill in the House, House Bill 1506, has not gotten a hearing.

The Department of Public Safety, which administers the state corrections system, has testified in support of the bill, asking that money be appropriated for any additional expenses that might be required for officials from the state Office of Elections to explain the process to inmates and to process ballots.

Some commenters have raised concerns. “I’m not sure that all the security issues have been addressed,” Alan Urusaki told legislators.

Others are philosophically opposed. “Want to vote, don’t be a criminal,” said Chris Wells in submitted testimony.

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The state Office of Elections said it was taking no official position on the measure.

Criminal justice reform advocates say that giving inmates the right to vote while they are in detention could be life-changing for them.

DeMont Conner, a reform advocate who spent two decades in jail and prison for crimes committed in his 20s, said that being able to vote would make a big difference in the lives of inmates.

“They would all be part of the process,” the Nanakuli resident said. “Instead of talking about how to rob the next drug dealer, they can talk about who is the best candidate and where they come from.”

DeMont Conner, a former convict, told lawmakers giving inmates the right to vote would be life-changing for them. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Conner said getting the right to vote would help inmates overcome their feeling of disenfranchisement and help them feel like full members of society once again.

“Voting may seem like a little thing but it’s a big thing; it’s empowering,” he said.

Historically, in much of the United States, people convicted of felonies lost their right to vote but in many states today, the right has been restored when their sentences are completed.  Hawaii law similarly permits people with felony convictions to vote after they have been released.

In the past 20 years, significant reforms have been made on the state level across the country to make it easier for convicted criminals to vote. Efforts have sped up more recently, with voters in Florida last year approving a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights for felons once they are released, except those convicted of murder and sexual assault.

In two states, however, Vermont and Maine, felons never lose the right to vote, even when they are in jail. In 2016, California passed legislation that allows people in county jails to vote.

The bill in Hawaii would follow in that path, permitting all people who were “Hawaii residents immediately prior to incarceration to vote in Hawaii elections,” according to language in the bill.

The League is endorsing similar measures to promote voting rights for prisoners elsewhere in the country.

They are backing national legislation, known as HR 1, or the For The People Act, which would restore voting rights for people who have been convicted of a criminal offense. It requires every state to notify people who have been convicted of crimes that their right to vote has been restored. It also blocks federal prison funding for any state that fails to notify convicts that they are permitted to vote.

Public Safety Director Noland Espinda looks on at the 3pm oversight commission hearing.
Public Safety Director Noland Espinda testified in support of granting voting rights to prisoners. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The League also lobbied for passage of the Florida voter rights expansion. And in Kentucky, one of only three states that permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions, the League has issued a call to reform the state’s election practices.

While it seems a bit unlikely to see a group known for its political moderation taking up the cause of prison reform, it’s actually close to the group’s roots.

For almost 100 years, the League of Women Voters has worked to boost voter participation. The group formed as women first got the right to vote in national elections in 1920 after the 72-year struggle to gain suffrage, and since then they have turned their efforts to supporting enfranchisement for other groups as well.

In the 1960s, they supported the civil rights movement. In the 1970s, they backed the Equal Rights Amendment and in the 1980s, they were at the forefront of the effort to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1982.

In Hawaii, the League’s support for the measure came at the urging of Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, who had proposed similar measures in the past that failed. Brady told them she thought the mood in Hawaii was shifting and becoming more favorable to criminal-justice reforms.

“There’s a mood shift in the country,” Brady said. “People are really waking up.”

In January, Mason, Tomchak and Brady met over lunch at Café Julia at the downtown YMCA to talk about joining forces. Brady got assistance in drafting the measure from the local chapter of the ACLU.

The League, a bipartisan, volunteer-run organization, operates on a consensus model, which means that they take no action until and unless the members agree as a group to move forward. Once they agreed, the League began preparing testimony to show their support for the measure.

Mason said she doesn’t know if the legislation will approve the measure this session, but said she is sure it will pass eventually.

“The average person in Hawaii recognizes injustice when they see it, and they don’t want to ignore it anymore,” she said.

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