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Oakland legislator pushing for parolees right to vote

on October 3, 2019

California Assemblymembers Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento), and a host of advocacy group members rejoiced on September 6, as the “Free the Vote Act”—also known as the Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 6 and Amendment Bill 646—passed the California State Assembly.

ACA 6 aims to restore voting rights to nearly 50,000 California residents who are currently on parole. Having passed the Assembly with a 54-16 vote, this bill will now head to the California Senate where it will need a two-thirds majority to pass. Bonta and McCarty are co-authors of the bill. 

Legal Services for Prisoners—an Oakland grassroots civil and human rights organization that fights for the rights of formerly and currently incarcerated people and their families– is among the leading advocacy groups that sponsored ACA 6. Executive director Dorsey Nunn said that forbidding parolees from voting is an unfair punishment and a form of voter suppression that needs to be addressed immediately. “Parolee Californians are constituents, taxpayers, and business owners—they have families and they’re our peers,’’ he said, “Laws affect their lives and lives of everyone in their care. Therefore, as citizens, they should have a voice in their democracy.’’

Walking around Lake Merrit and Grand Avenue, on a recent Saturday, Ronald, a member of the LSPC who has a felony conviction, said he feels that the laws preventing parolees from voting were enacted to prevent people of color from participating in any elections. “Our democracy is stronger when it is fair and inclusive,’’ he said. ‘’ ‘’Let us free the vote for people like me in California.’’ 

Ronald said that since his conviction 12 years ago, he has missed participating in all elections. One of those elections that hurt him the most was the 2016 presidential elections when he supported candidate Hillary Clinton.

Initiate Justice, a grassroots organization based in Los Angeles with offices in Oakland, focuses on organizing members both inside and outside of prisons, to advocate for their wellbeing and to change criminal justice policies in California. This group also supported the passage of the ACA 6 by reaching out to every member of the State Assembly to furnish them with information that they hoped would sway them in support of the ACA 6. 

In a telephone interview, the group’s founder and executive director Taina Vegas-Edmond, said that not allowing parolees to vote creates racial oppression because the majority of parolees are people of color. “The suppression of the right to vote is not in the interest of public safety,’’ she said.  “It is rather rooted in a system of justice that believes is punitive in nature and only robs marginalized people of their political power.’’

Many legal and advocacy groups trace voter suppression back to the Jim Crow laws that were designed to target Black voters a century and a half ago. Back in the late 19th century and early 20th Century, southern states passed these laws to suppress poor and racial minority voters. They included poll taxes and literacy tests.

In the case of California, after the Civil War state leadership refused to ratify the 15th Amendment, which prohibits the federal government and any state from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. State leaders in California also put up a prohibitive clause in the state constitution that prevents parolees from voting.

If ACA 6 is approved by the state senate, it will head to 2020 ballot, and all Californians will cast their vote to decide if it should become law.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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