Hawaii: Proposal to abolish felony disenfranchisement stalls in Democratic legislature
A legislative committee in Hawaii’s Senate voted in February to advance a bill abolishing felony disenfranchisement, a significant move since Maine, Puerto Rico, and Vermont are the only places in the United States that do not disenfranchise people because of a felony conviction.
But the deadline for the legislation to make it out of committees has now expired with no action from the other committees to which it was referred. This means that Senate Bill 1503 is effectively tabled for the year. The bill will carry over to 2020, and proponents told the Political Report that they would press ahead then.
Hawaii currently strips people of the right to vote while they are incarcerated for a felony conviction, and restores it upon their release from prison. SB 1503 would reform that practice by enabling incarcerated people to cast absentee ballots. State advocates describe amending this step as crucial to achieving a healthier democracy. “If we want people to be full human beings and full citizens, we need to make sure that everybody has the right to vote,” Kat Brady, the coordinator of the state group Community Alliance on Prisons, told me. “What happens in the voting booth affects their families. The families are sending the money for phone calls, for commissary stuff, so it’s ridiculous to think that there’s no nexus between voting and citizenship and incarceration.” Janet Mason, the chairperson of the legislative committee of the League of Women Voters of Hawaii, which has also championed this legislation, agrees that the right to vote is not something to take away. “People don’t lose their citizenship just because they’re sentenced to prison,” she said.
Brady and Mason both also argued that maintaining voting rights can facilitate eventual re-entry by connecting individuals to their communities. “If we want people to enter the community as full citizens, then what better way than to help them engage” while they are in prison, Brady said. The isolation of incarcerated Hawaiians is exacerbated by the fact that a substantial share are in out-of-state facilities; 1,450 are detained in a private prison in Arizona.
In addition, the state’s carceral system disproportionately ensnares Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, who are therefore also disproportionately excluded from the electoral process.
According to a 2010 report by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Native Hawaiians make up 39 percent of the incarcerated population but only 24 percent of the general population and 27 percent of those arrested. The study found specifically that “for any given determination of guilt, Native Hawaiians are much more likely to get a prison sentence than almost all other groups, except for Native Americans,” and this even “controlling for age, gender, and type of charge.”
That measure is directly relevant to voting rights since Hawaii uses incarceration—as opposed to other forms of sentence like probation—as the specific basis on which to disenfranchise people who are convicted of a felony.
State Senator Maile Shimabukuro pointed to the overrepresentation of native Hawaiians in the state’s prisons to explain why she was sponsoring this reform. “It promotes engagement for disenfranchised segments of our society,” she told me via email. “This bill is a step toward re-integrating native Hawaiians and other minorities back into our political process, and showing them that their voices matter.”
Besides Hawaii, bills that fully abolish felony disenfranchisement have been introduced in at least six other states in the present legislative sessions.
You can read the remainder of the story about Hawaii’s disenfranchisement reform, including state advocates’ thoughts on what stalled the bill this year, here.