Voter Registration Weekend of Action—Lansing, Michigan, April 28th, 2012
Credit: Christopher Dilts

Darryl Poole has never voted. That’s not because he isn’t civic-minded. Quite the opposite: Poole, 51, lives in Sacramento, Calif. with his wife and daughter. He and his wife recently bought a house together. He is doing important community work as a certified drug-and-alcohol counselor who advises formerly incarcerated people on how to reenter society. It’s because Poole is formerly incarcerated himself that he can’t vote. Released from prison on Nov. 6, 2018—Election Day—after 30 years behind bars, he remains on parole. And in California, those on parole cannot cast ballots.

But starting in California’s next election, that will change. On Nov. 3, Proposition 17, giving voting rights to those on parole, passed by roughly 20 percentage points. Before, Poole would have had to wait three years—when his parole is set to end—to cast a ballot. Some parolees would have never had their voting rights restored since parole can last anywhere from a few years to a lifetime. Now, roughly 50,000 California citizens will be reinfranchised.

For Poole, it’s a significant step forward and a meaningful way to help reintegrate the formerly incarcerated into society. “For myself, just having that feeling when I woke up in the morning and knowing I can do my civic duty, it is priceless,” he said. “If men and women who are out here on parole and they feel anything close to what I feel, there is no way that a person is going to mess that up.”

From a policy perspective, giving formerly incarcerated people the right to vote is a no-brainer. Every state (and D.C.) that gives parolees the franchise has a lower recidivism rate than California. In a recent Op-Ed for the Sacramento Bee, George Gascón, the new district attorney in Los Angeles, cited a 2007 study from the American Probation and Parole Association showing that “disenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of [formerly incarcerated people].” There are certainly some confounding variables, but it’s not hard to see how the two are related. The right to vote gives people an incentive not to engage in behavior that would violate their parole. And yet multiple states continue to deny the franchise to the formerly incarcerated. Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arizona bar those convicted of certain felonies from ever voting again. Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky permanently disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony.

Why do so many states maintain these draconian laws? The answer, as is so often the case in America, is racism. Under the pretense of the 13th amendment, which barred involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime, southern states arrested and convicted former slaves for benign “offenses,” like loitering, as a way to “lease them back into the convict leasing system, lease them back to plantation owners,” said Ken Oliver, the policy director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children in Oakland (I previously worked for LSPC). A vital component of that disempowerement was taking away their voting rights.

This system continues to reduce the political power of Black Americans. One out of every three male Black babies born today will likely be imprisoned. According to Pew Research, as of 2017, Black people make up 12 percent of the adult population in the United States but constitute 33 percent of its prison population. In California, 3-out-of-4 men who leave prison are either Black, Latino, or Asian American. Because these groups disproportionately vote Democratic, Republican politicians have gone out of their way to prevent the formerly incarcerated from gaining voting rights. In 2018, Florida voters passed an amendment restoring voting rights to former prisoners after completing their sentence. The amendment passed with 65 percent of the vote and enfranchised roughly 1.5 million. But instead of letting voters speak for themselves, the Republican-controlled statehouse passed a law signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis that required convicted felons to pay off fines and fees associated with their case before regaining the franchise. It is a substantial barrier. For at least one resident, that would require paying roughly $600,000.

As California shows, disenfranchisement isn’t limited to the former confederacy or GOP-controlled states. California declined to ratify the voting-centered 15th amendment in 1870 but 92 years later it finally approved the measure for symbolic reasons since it was already part of the federal Constitution. The original California constitution stated that “laws shall be made to exclude…the right of suffrage those who shall hereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes.” What constitutes a “high” crime? The ambiguity was the point—such vague language gave the state latitude to disenfranchise people of color. “We’re still living with a lot of vestiges from those laws,” Oliver told me.

The passage of Proposition 17 is a step in the right direction. Adding formerly incarcerated people to the voting rolls puts pressure on politicians to invest in policies like apprenticeship programs, free community college affordable housing, and meaningful criminal justice reform. The formerly incarcerated are disproportionately people of color. Enfranchising them forces elected officials to pay more attention to racism in America.

There are other signs of hope from the recent elections. Nebraska and Utah voted to remove the involuntary servitude exceptions from their state constitutions with 68 and 81 percent of the vote, respectively. Alabama overwhelmingly voted to authorize the legislature to remove language from its state constitution allowing for poll taxes and promoting school segregation, and preventing persons of different races from marrying.

But the fight is far from over. “We’re just now getting to the point where we treat people who have committed a felony as human beings and not as objects,” Oliver said. The federal and California constitutions still contain involuntary servitude as a  consequence  of legally adjudicated imprisonment. Only two states—Vermont and Maine—and D.C. allow people currently in prison to vote. We are in the middle of a nationwide reckoning with our racist history. Now seems as good a time as ever to uproot it through legislative and constitutional reform at the state and federal levels.

Zach Harris

Follow Zach on Twitter @Zachharriss. Zach Harris is a Washington Monthly intern and a senior at Northwestern University where he studies journalism and history.