State officials, civil rights groups react to report denying thousands in Pa. their voting rights due to felony convictions

45% of nearly 43,000 Pennsylvania disenfranchised incarcerated people are African American, new report finds

HARRISBURG, Nov. 1 – On the last day to apply for a mail-in or absentee ballot in Pennsylvania, state Reps. Rick Krajewski and Chris Rabb, both D-Phila., and civil rights groups reacted to a new report, which found that 42,976 people in Pennsylvania will be formally disenfranchised.

The report is by The Sentencing Project, which found that across the country, 4.6 million people, or one in every 50 adults, will be barred from voting in the 2022 midterms due to a felony conviction. In Pennsylvania, only those incarcerated for a felony conviction are ineligible to vote. The 45.4% who will be disenfranchised are African American in a state that is less than 12.2% Black.

In addition, advocates warned that thousands of Pennsylvanians currently held in local jails will be unable to vote despite being legally eligible to cast a ballot. A 2021 report by All Voting is Local, Committee of Seventy and Common Cause PA found that only 52 people had requested mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election using an address associated with one of 18 county jails. At the time, nearly 25,000 people were held in jails across the 67 counties.

Reactions to the report included:

"Felony disenfranchisement is a manifestation of how we dehumanize people in the carceral system,” Krajewski said. “We value retribution over rehabilitation. Punishment over restorative justice. And because we believe people who make mistakes should be penalized, it also means that we don’t think they should participate in democracy. This weakens our democracy. It creates elected officials who don’t feel accountable to people who are incarcerated. It means legislation that gets considered will continue to value retribution over rehabilitation and this awful system of mass incarceration will continue to grow. Ending felony disenfranchisement would improve our democracy and improve the laws that uphold our current carceral system."

“We know that racism and felony disenfranchisement have an intertwined history,” Rabb said. “This report confirms this already salient point and supports the fact that countless people in Pennsylvania and nationally have had their liberty stolen by an unjust criminal justice system. As we enter one of the most consequential midterm elections in history, nearly 43,000 voters in Pennsylvania will not be eligible to cast a ballot because of draconian, discriminatory practices that shut people with felony convictions from participating in democracy: laws that we born generations ago during rising inequalities in the nation’s criminal justice system,” he said.

In May, Rabb was joined by Krajewski and Reps. Donna Bullock and Jason Dawkins, to introduce H.B. 2718 that would permit all incarcerated individuals in correctional institutions to be eligible to vote by absentee ballot and H.B. 2719 that would require the Department of State to create a uniform policy regarding voting in all correctional institutions.

“Along with my colleagues in the House, I’ve introduced legislation to enable all eligible Pennsylvanians in correctional facilities to vote by absentee ballot. The only way to create equitable political power across all our communities is to adopt strong legislative actions to reduce inequity and entrenched racial disparities in the system,” Rabb said.

“Incarcerated residents of the commonwealth are impacted by how resources are allocated, how laws are enacted and the way in which criminal justice is practiced, and they should have a say in who represents them in the halls of power,” said Leigh Owens, executive director of the PENNfranchise Project. “These nearly 43,000 individuals, many of them people of color, could be the voting block that finally tips the scales of power in Pennsylvania toward the people. If our elected officials knew that their incarcerated constituents could cast a ballot, perhaps they would care more about the conditions inside these facilities and the conditions and laws that lead to mass incarceration.”

“Incarceration should not impose a civil death upon an individual,” said Robert Saleem Holbrook, executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center. “Enfranchising incarcerated people, and the most marginalized segments of our society, is evidence of a strong and vibrant democracy. On the other hand, suppressing the sacred right to vote is a symbol of democracy in decline. In some of the most consequential elections in recent history the 43,000 people incarcerated in Pennsylvania should have their voice heard and more importantly their vote counted.”

“If America is supposed to be a democracy, then it has failed in that experiment,” said Shakaboona Marshall, executive director of the Human Rights Coalition. “Coalition believes that a true democracy provides ‘universal suffrage’, that is, a universal right to vote by everyone in society without any exclusions of people due to restrictions based on discrimination and biases. Yet, in the City of Brotherly Love – home of the Quaker State, of the U.S. Constitution, of The Liberty Bell, of the first President George Washington, and of Betsy Ross and the making of the American flag –, we have the systematic denial of 7,000 incarcerated citizens’ access to exercise their right to vote in Philadelphia County jail system and of denial 23,000 incarcerated citizens’ access to exercise their right to vote in Pennsylvania’s 67 counties’ jail system. Moreover, we have an additional 43,000 incarcerated citizens within the Pa. Department of Corrections who are stripped of their constitutional right to vote for being sentenced to prison for a criminal felony conviction. So, what we have here is a premeditated, ongoing, conspiracy to disenfranchise about 73,000 American citizens from voting during elections within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and with 45.5% of the 73,000 being African American citizens who are mostly impacted by this race-based felony disenfranchisement scheme.

“The antidote to this poisonous disenfranchisement criminal scheme is to ensure that all people are allowed to vote, including those incarcerated citizens serving prison sentences for a felony criminal conviction. That is why the Human Rights Coalition in Philadelphia advocates for universal suffrage and supports H.B. 2718 and H.B. 2719 to return the right to vote to incarcerated citizens and require a uniform voting policy in prisons and jails.” 

More information is available by contacting Krajewski’s office at 215-724-222.