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Voting rights restored for Californians on parole

on December 3, 2020

After over four decades of disenfranchisement, Californians on parole now have the right to vote. Because the U.S. invests heavily in mass incarceration, the number of people who have lost their right to vote because of their parole status has risen from 1.7 million Americans in 1976 to 6.1 million in 2016. This act would start to reverse those numbers. 

In Alameda County, an overwhelming majority of residents voted to make this possible. 74% of the population voted to restore parolees’ right to vote compared to 26% of people who voted against it. 

People who are  formerly incarcerated want the right to vote. Research conducted by Initiate Justice, a nonprofit founded to end mass incarceration, found that 37% of impacted people said they voted before their incarceration, but 98% said they would vote if their rights were restored. 

“When asked why they would vote…they [incarcerated people] believed voting is important for having a voice in society, that voting would allow them to contribute positively to their community,” the report concluded. 

“Respondents stated they wanted a say in how their tax dollars are spent, which is especially crucial for people on parole who are working and paying taxes, yet have no political agency in determining what local, state and federal government does.” 

As of Nov. 25, 2020, there are currently 164,649 people in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation population. 

Jonathan Chiu, a man who was formerly incarcerated at San Quentin, says regaining the right to vote is crucial to reentry into everyday society, especially for people who have been incarcerated most of their lives. 

“Prior to my incarceration, I didn’t care about the criminal justice system,” Chiu said. “I just felt like my voice didn’t matter. Going through 16 years of this made me realize that my voice and my vote does matter.”

After spending over a decade incarcerated, Chiu says he’s excited for the future. He feels like he’s being welcomed as a citizen again. 

“For people who have been incarcerated for 20, 30, years, it feels for us like everything is a privilege and not a right,” Chiu said. “So now, this [the right to vote] feels like it’s not a privilege or something we have to earn. It feels like a part of who we are again.” 

Even if California has the highest incarceration rate in the country, Chiu doesn’t believe that it’s a reflection of the state or of society. A large proportion of prisons are filled with Black and  Hispanic/Latine people, as well as  other people of color, which he noted is not reflective of the country’s demographics. 

Racial inequalities are noticeable across the U.S. and California when it comes to incarceration. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the imprisonment rate for African American men is 4,236 per 100,000 people—ten times the imprisonment rate for white men. Meaning approximately 1 in 13 Black Americans are not able to vote in California. 

“This is shining a light on what incarceration is and what incarcerated people look like,” Chiu said. “Hopefully with more movement like this, there will be more of us being able to change how policy is implemented in California.”

According to research done by Initiate Justice, 91% of people in prison and on parole indicated that they considered issues of public safety and crime prevention to be important to them citing the fact that “people impacted by the criminal justice system are also members of the community just like anyone else – they have families and want to ensure their loved ones can feel safe and protected.”

Specific issues that concern them include  increasing the minimum wage, making higher education free and increasing teacher’s salaries, affordable health care and access to substance abuse treatment and creating support networks for at risk youth and providing job training for people on parole.

If California removed all voting restrictions for people convicted of felonies, 162,000 people would gain back their right to vote. 

California is not at the forefront of this issue—Virginia, Alabama, New York, Louisiana and Florida all  passed similar laws restoring voting rights between 2016-2018. 

A study published by the UC Berkeley La Raza Law Journal found that the harsher voting restrictions are, the more likely a formerly incarcerated person is to reoffend in their state. 

“Felony disenfranchisement results in alienation and isolation, which only serves to increase further incidents of criminal activity,” the study said. “If one has no stake in his or her community, then one has little incentive to behave in a prosocial manner other than to avoid punishment.” 

Betty McKay is a large reason that getting parolees the right to vote was passed. McKay is a recently incarcerated woman and an organizer for Essie Justice Group, a nonprofit organization centered around women and mass incarceration. When it came for advertising to spread the word of this proposition, McKay helped by doing radio commercials, podcasts, op-eds, articles. “You name it, I did it,” she said. 

“I really thought that California was ready to get this right. I’m very passionate about this because parole is not part of your sentence, it’s about acclimating you back into society,” McKay said. 

According to her, the reason the proposition  passed was the campaigning behind it. She believes it made people in California reimagine what incarcerated people look like, to see them as average citizens who care about their community.

“I know people will vote when they’re released, because people voted when we were inside. We did a mock election when I was inside [incarcerated] and 62% of women took their free time to vote,” McKay said. “There is an interest and there is a desire. You have to consider that inside you don’t have very much free time to vote in a mock election, that’s investment. I definitely think it’s part of rehabilitation.” 

McKay said now that parolees have the right to vote, they will more be invested in their communities because they feel truly accepted. She recently got to vote for the first time after 27 years in prison and 3 years on parole. 

“Two weeks before the election they took me off parole and I thought to myself ‘Oh my God! I get to vote for the President!’” McKay said. “On the day I sat down to vote, I made a date with myself and sat at the dining room table with jazz on and read every word. It was a very serious, beautiful moment for me.” 

Sascha Atkins-Loria, a social worker with the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office, said California will see an influx of voters because voting helps those who are on parole to engage civically and promotes positive interaction with their community. 

“Voting makes a difference in who is elected into office and what laws are passed,” Atkins-Loria said. “There’s a lot of laws that relate to the criminal justice system, I think it’s incredibly important that those who are closest to the problem also have the ability to have a voice in advocating for solutions.”

“The more people who have been affected by the criminal justice system who have the ability to have a voice, the better.”

The featured image was taken before the COVID-19 pandemic and shows people formerly on parole.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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