general election

Efforts to Register and Provide Ballots to DC Felons in Federal Prisons Face Hurdles

Privacy concerns prevent providing DC inmate information to Board of Elections, Bureau of Prisons says

NBC Universal, Inc.

About 300 of the approximately 2,600 federal prison inmates from the District of Columbia have registered to vote in the November general elections, according to a review by the News4 I-Team.

A newly passed D.C. law gave voting rights to incarcerated felons from the District, but efforts to register and provide ballots to those inmates have encountered hurdles, the I-Team found.

In July, the District passed a police reform law, which provided voting rights to prison inmates from the District. District election and public safety officials have sought to enfranchise those voters in short order to get them registration materials and absentee ballots in time for the Nov. 3election.

Convicted felons in the District are imprisoned in many of the more than 100 federal correctional facilities nationwide, because D.C. does not have its own state prison system. Though they’re incarcerated outside the region, the nearly 2,600 District felons remain residents of the District for voting purposes. The District must work with – and through – the Federal Bureau of Prisons to communicate with those inmates.   

“We want people who reenter society, to not be part of the problem, but be part of the solution,” said D.C. community activist Ron Moten. “And (voting) is a step in the right direction.”

But Moten and multiple D.C. officials said the process of registering D.C.’s felons is being slowed unnecessarily.

The D.C. Board of Elections and nonprofit legal aid groups have sought a master list of all D.C. inmates in all federal correctional facilities to help the agency send registration forms and ballots. But the Federal Bureau of Prisons has rejected the request. The agency said federal regulations prohibit the sharing of inmate lists, even with local governments, due to privacy reasons. The decision has hampered the District’s ability to register inmates or ensure the timely return of their ballots, according to multiple District officials.

The Bureau of Prisons told the I-Team it has emailed all D.C. inmates with information to access voting registration forms. 

“In addition to the electronic information, the BOP also provided hard-copy D.C. voter information and registration materials at each institution in English and Spanish,” the agency said.

We want people who reenter society, to not be part of the problem, but be part of the solution.

Community activist Ron Moten

Of the nearly 2,600 D.C. inmates in the federal prison system, 300 have managed to register so far. Approximately 50 of those inmates made errors on their registration forms that have required corrections, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“This is not right. This is not democracy,” said Moten, who said the federal government should be willing to share voting lists with the District when it ensures voting rights.

D.C. Board of Elections Chairman Michael Bennett said his agency is working with the Bureau of Prisons to disseminate more voting rights information and instructions to inmates.

“We’re working with them now to make sure that the D.C. citizens in those facilities have an opportunity to vote,” Bennett said.

The Board of Elections and nonprofit legal aid groups are also collecting information about inmate locations from relatives of the incarcerated D.C. felons.

The I-Team found another D.C. government’s Corrections Information Council, which monitors federal prisons on behalf of the District, has a full census of D.C. felons in the Federal Bureau of Prisons system but is prohibited from sharing it with the Board of Elections. A spokeswoman said the Corrections Information Council has a memorandum of understanding with the federal government that requires the list of inmates remains confidential.

In a statement last week, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said, ““I particularly appreciate that BOP appears to be working to inform D.C. inmates about their voting rights. However, I continue to call on BOP to send the D.C. Board of Elections information on specific inmates and where they are housed, especially in future elections, as it is largely too late for the 2020 election. Because this is public information, sharing this information would not seem to violate any law. If BOP continues to refuse to release this information, I will be forced to introduce legislation to require sharing this information, which is already publicly available.”

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

Contact Us