A federal agency is working with left-of-center nonprofits to increase voting among prisoners and former prison inmates under an executive order from President Joe Biden designed to increase election turnout. 

The Federal Bureau of Prisons has partnered with and regularly consults on voting issues with the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Campaign Legal Center, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. 

Emery Nelson, spokesperson for the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  which is part of the Justice Department, confirmed the arrangement to The Daily Signal. 

“The FBOP meets quarterly with the D.C. Board of Elections, the League of Women Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Campaign Legal Center, Disability Rights D.C., The Sentencing Project, and the Washington Lawyers’ Committee,” Nelson said.

The League of Women Voters is helping the prison agency to distribute an informational voting video that is “scheduled for completion by the end of February 2024,” Nelson later added. 

The partnerships result from Biden’s Executive Order 14019, signed in March 2021, which calls for “soliciting and facilitating approved, nonpartisan third-party organizations and State officials to provide voter registration services on agency premises” to promote voting across the nation.

Republicans in the House and Senate, as well as government watchdog groups, have pressed unsuccessfully for the Biden administration to disclose what third-party organizations it is working with. 

The Daily Signal previously reported that one agency, the Indian Health Service, has worked with the ACLU and Demos, a liberal advocacy group that helped draft Biden’s executive order. 

“What’s deeply troubling is that most of these organizations have a history of being allied with the policies of only one of the two political parties, and this is clearly a partisan effort to keep the current president in power,” Stewart Whitson, legal director for the Foundation for Government Accountability, told The Daily Signal.

Whitson’s organization, a conservative government watchdog group, filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, parent agency of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, seeking its strategic plan to carry out Biden’s executive order on voting. 

The Foundation for Government Accountability first exposed a July 2021 “listening session” on implementing Biden’s order that included staff from the White House Domestic Policy Council and numerous left-leaning organizations, including some of the Bureau of Prisons’ partners. 

“The best hope to stop this is for good, principled federal employees who witness a weaponized government get-out-the-vote effort for the Left to use whistleblower protections to report what they’ve seen,” Whitson said. 

The arrangement between Biden administration agencies and outside political groups is “anti-democratic,” said Scott Walter, president of the Capital Research Center, a conservative-leaning watchdog that tracks nonprofits.

“How anti-democratic of the White House to entangle itself in election administration with groups like the ACLU and the League of Women Voters—politicized nonprofits fighting for agendas that most Americans in this democracy don’t support,” Walter told The Daily Signal. “If a Republican White House tried such a stunt with, say, Charles Koch’s Believe in People, which is also a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, the media and congressional outrage would rightly be deafening.”

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is following Biden’s executive order to partner with nonpartisan organizations as well as local governments to promote voting, said Nelson, the bureau spokesperson. 

“Specifically, in 2023, the FBOP partnered with the League of Women Voters (LWV) and the District of Columbia Board of Elections (DCBOE) to offer civics education classes and voter registration drives at the Federal Correctional Institution (FCI) Cumberland and the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) Petersburg, two of the institutions with the highest number of D.C. residents,” Nelson said in an email, referring to prisons in Maryland and Virginia, respectively. 

“The FBOP is working with the LWV to virtually offer the civic/voter education class, Nelson added. “This is expected to be launched at FCC Hazelton [in West Virginia] in February and will be offered throughout the FBOP,” Nelson added. 

The Bureau of Prisons sent letters to all states that allow eligible incarcerated individuals to vote, Nelson said, and the bureau also has partnered with other local nonprofits. 

“The FBOP is partnering with Chicago Votes to bring voter education and registration to MCC Chicago as well,” Nelson said, referring to Metropolitan Correctional Center Chicago. 

“In November of 2023,” he added, “the FBOP partnered with the DCBOE [District of Columbia Board of Elections] to offer a presentation to a Topeka, Kansas, high school voting club regarding incarcerated individuals voting rights.”

Nelson said the Bureau of Prisons “is working with Los Angeles County to engage individuals in the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) Los Angeles and FCI Terminal Island [also in Los Angeles] to continue to strengthen their partnership with the FBOP.”

A total of 24 Republican state legislators in Pennsylvania last week signed onto a lawsuit to block Biden’s executive order on getting out the vote. 

In December, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives advanced legislation through the House Administration Committee that would repeal Biden’s order. The month before, Senate Republicans, led by Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, wrote to Biden asserting that his order could violate the federal Antideficiency Act, which bars agencies from spending money that isn’t authorized by Congress.  

“The order outlines various activities in which agencies are to engage, including promoting mail-in voting and partnering with third-party organizations to register voters,” Hagerty says in the letter, which was signed by 22 other Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “Federal agencies should be focused on their defined missions in a nonpartisan manner, not using taxpayer funds for voter mobilization efforts with potentially partisan impacts.” 

None of the private organizations named in this report responded to inquiries Monday from The Daily Signal. However, the same organizations signed on to “best practices” suggestions for the Bureau of Prisons in February 2023 to ensure that federal inmates who are eligible can vote.

Those recommendations to the Bureau of Prisons included “identifying a voter coordinator,” “facilitating voter registration,” “distribute voter registration forms,” “learn about the absentee ballot process for incarcerated voters who are residents of a given state or territory,” “disseminate state-specific voting information that incarcerated voters need,” and “provide opportunities to access voter information throughout incarceration.”

Although convicted felons are barred from voting on at least a temporary basis in most states, certain incarcerated individuals—such as someone awaiting trial—are eligible to vote. 

Biden’s executive order specifically called for providing voting access and education to U.S. citizens in federal custody, according to a 2021 White House press release.  

“The order will direct the attorney general to establish procedures to provide educational materials related to voter registration and voting, and to the extent practicable, to facilitate voter registration, for all eligible individuals in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons,” the press release said. “It also directs the attorney general to coordinate with the Probation and Pretrial Services Office to develop similar procedures for eligible individuals under its supervision.” 

Last year, a coalition of left-leaning organizations led by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights issued what it called a progress report on how federal agencies are complying with Biden’s order on increasing voter turnout. 

That report said the Bureau of Prisons had “work to do.”

“If comprehensively implemented, it should significantly increase voting access for eligible voters incarcerated in BOP facilities—who face some of the highest hurdles to participating in our democracy,” the coalition’s progress report said, adding later: “While BOP issued some helpful materials and has been working on making changes to provide voter registration services to eligible individuals under federal custody or control, they have been slow to implement such changes.”

U.S. District Judge John Badalamenti of the Middle District of Florida has yet to issue a final ruling in the Foundation for Government Accountability’s lawsuit to obtain the Justice Department’s strategic plan to implement Biden’s order. 

However, in a footnote in August citing the Freedom of Information Act, Badalamenti criticized the Justice Department for asserting “presidential privilege” to prevent releasing the strategic plan. 

“It cannot be that every document that is received by the president’s immediate White House advisers and their staff is protected by the presidential communications privilege so long as those advisers and their staffs may, at some point, rely on the document to brief the president on some matter,” the judge’s footnote says. 

“Were that the policy,” he added, “agencies could elude FOIA’s congressionally enacted purpose—to ‘pierce the veil of administrative secrecy and to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny’ … and withhold any document merely by sending it to any White House adviser or their staff.”

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