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Sandy Chung, executive director of ACLU of Oregon and Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and CEO of Urban League of Portland
Sandy Chung, executive director of ACLU of Oregon and Nkenge Harmon Johnson, president and CEO of Urban League of Portland
Published: 28 March 2023

All Oregonians should have a say in what happens in our communities and a voice in their government. But currently 12,000 incarcerated Oregonians are denied their right to vote.

Unlike other states where voter suppression initiatives have been a historical and current reality, Oregon has a rich and strong history of inclusive democratic innovations — from being an early adopter of direct democracy through ballot measures to universal mail-in voting and automatic voter registration.

This year, Oregon has the opportunity to lead with our democratic values again. By passing Senate Bill 579, Oregon legislators have an opportunity to reject racism and restore voting rights for incarcerated Oregonians.

Blocking people with felony convictions from voting started in the Jim Crow era as an intentional strategy to keep Black people from voting — a way to continue the disenfranchisement of slavery. Prohibiting incarcerated individuals from voting does not make us safer, nor does it prevent crime. It is an outdated relic of historical racism that is misaligned with Oregon’s current racial justice values.

Black Americans constitute 2.2 million of people disenfranchised from voting, banned from voting at four times the rate of all other racial groups combined.

The impact of these deliberately anti-Black policies continue to perpetuate racism and harm in our communities today.

In Oregon, 9% of incarcerated people are Black, whereas Black people are 2% of the state’s residents. Continued overcriminalization and mass incarceration of Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color are contributing to the disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black and brown people. Oregon disenfranchises its Black citizens at a higher rate than the overall U.S. national average (2.29% versus 1.99%), and at a higher rate than neighboring states Washington and California.

Law enforcement officers also stop, arrest and kill Black people at higher rates than white people. The Portland Police Bureau’s Gun Violence Reduction Team disproportionately stopped Black residents. Out of 1,605 stops citywide in 2019, 52% were Black residents in a city that is only 6% Black. It was also found that when residents were searched, white residents were more frequently found with contraband.

Community connection key to success

More than 95% of incarcerated people will re-enter our communities after completing their sentences. Yet the impacts of the punitive criminal legal system can ripple across families and communities for generations. A history of incarceration leads to lifelong isolation, trauma and barriers to jobs and housing — key building blocks of a stable life.

Research shows that people who’ve been incarcerated are less likely to be convicted again if they feel connected to their community and invested in the future. It benefits all of us — including the wellness of our families and state — when we support people to participate in civic engagement while they are incarcerated. Restoring voting rights for people in prisons will allow Oregon to turn away from its racist roots while supporting currently impacted people in successful community reintegration — which will prevent future harm.

SB 579 is supported by the Guaranteeing the Right to Vote Coalition, which includes community and advocacy organizations such as the ACLU of Oregon, Next Up Action Fund, Oregon Justice Resource Center, Unite Oregon and the Urban League of Portland. We urge legislators to support SB 579 and help dismantle a relic of systemic racism in our criminal legal system.

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