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People on Parole Fight to Reclaim the Ballot

Shutting out parolees from the two most basic civic institutions, the jury and the ballot, threatens democracy.

Shutting out parolees from the two most basic civic institutions, the jury and the ballot, threatens democracy.

Part of the Series

Dauras Cyprian is a community organizer and campaigner for legal system reform in California, with expertise in restorative justice and peer counseling. But he can’t cast a vote for any of the politicians he’s lobbied, and he can’t serve on a jury in the court system that he knows inside out. Cyprian is one of tens of thousands of Californians with felony convictions who has been released from prison, yet remains not quite free. Because he is on parole, Cyprian is shut out of two of the country’s most basic civic institutions: the jury box and the ballot box.

Under California law, Cyprian, who spent 26 years in state prison, has two more years of a five-year parole term to go before he can vote. “I have a family,” he said. “I love my family … [but] I have no say in what elected official represents us. I have no say in how my tax dollars are spent.” He is also concerned about the other 50,000 voting-age adults statewide who have served their time but remain locked out of the democratic process. “Parole is supposed to assist people to re-acclimate back into society,” he said. “And what better way to do that than to allow people to be civically engaged?”

Cyprian’s advocacy group, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, wants to answer that question by pushing legislation to allow California’s parolees to vote in future elections. Twin voting rights proposals — constitutional amendment ACA 6 and an accompanying Assembly bill, AB 646 — would create a 2020 ballot measure for parolee voting rights. The group is also campaigning to end a longstanding exclusion of people with felony convictions from juries.

Nationwide, as of 2016, more than 6 million people are effectively barred from voting due to a felony conviction. Currently, 12 states — Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming — maintain some form of post-sentence voting restriction for those on parole or probation, or with outstanding legal debts. Some states bar people with felony convictions from voting indefinitely or for an extended period beyond their release date, often requiring a special pardon or petition process for individual restoration of rights. Meanwhile, 49 states and Washington, D.C., restrict people with felony convictions from serving jury duty, with 28 states maintaining indefinite bans.

Democracy Denied

Felony disenfranchisement and jury exclusion reflect the fallout of decades of hardline anti-crime laws and “zero tolerance” anti-drug policing. But even in today’s climate of prison reform, disenfranchisement marks the paradox of mass incarceration: The communities most impacted by the prison system are denied a voice in the government that runs it. Conversely, any restoration of voting rights through the legislature ultimately depends on the support of a franchise that currently does not include them.

ACA 6, which is now moving through the assembly with the support of Secretary of State Alex Padilla, follows many recent initiatives to expand voting rights for people after prison. Florida, New York and Maryland recently restored voting rights to parolees through legislation or rule changes. Florida passed a breakthrough referendum last year, which effectively restored the right to vote for nearly 1.5 million formerly incarcerated people with felony records (although Republican lawmakers have since narrowed the scope of the bill to limit the eligibility pool). Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill to restore voting rights to more than 9,000 parolees. New Mexico is mulling a proposal to completely abolish disenfranchisement for people who are currently or formerly incarcerated, potentially making it the third state after Maine and Vermont to allow people to cast their vote from behind prison bars.

The conversation has even spilled onto the 2020 campaign trail, sparking a debate in May among Democratic presidential hopefuls over whether people currently in prison should be allowed to vote, as they are in Maine and Vermont.

The proposed re-enfranchisement of parolees in California parallels Gov. Gavin Newsom’s criminal legal reform agenda, including overhauling the juvenile legal system and shutting down private prisons.

The population silenced by felony disenfranchisement is growing too big to ignore. The Sentencing Project found that as of 2016, nationwide, “One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised,” roughly quadruple the rate of the non-Black, voting-age population. Since 1980, the number of states that have disenfranchised more than 5 percent of Black adults has risen from 9 to 23. In Florida, the controversial razor-thin margin of victory in the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election was perhaps the most stunning example of the consequences of felony disenfranchisement in swing states. About one in five Black Floridians of voting age are disenfranchised by felony convictions, and a 2017 analysis of the Florida electorate estimated that nearly 180,000 Latinx individuals (or over 7 percent of Florida’s Latinx voting-age population) were disenfranchised.

Not only does mass incarceration end up diminishing the voting power of many communities, but also, due to the locations of the prisons themselves, it can distort census counts in a way that compounds the political impact of disenfranchisement laws. Since incarcerated people are housed in remote, often rural and white areas, well outside their communities, prison populations end up artificially inflating the census statistics of prison towns and depleting the counts of their actual home constituencies. This results in a significant overcount of prison-town populations, and a parallel undercount of urban communities with high incarceration rates. The phenomenon known as “prison gerrymandering” has been criticized as a violation of civil rights and voting rights, but is totally banned in only a handful of states.

Politics on Parole

While lawmakers may not be prepared to give the ballot to people in prison, denying the vote to people on parole seems especially hard to justify, on either moral or public-safety grounds. “Most of us that don’t have a felony conviction, we sort of take [voting rights] for granted,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. But for individuals just released from prison, “if you’ve been denied the right to participate, it really can be a very profound experience that you’re now considered a full citizen, once again, of the country…. Voting is part of that engagement with the community that contributes to a person’s ability to make it when they come home.”

In California, advocates underscore that parolees have actually completed their sentences, and parole is intended to foster post-prison rehabilitation. Taina Vargas-Edmond, executive director of California-based advocacy group Initiate Justice, noted, “There’s this misconception among some folks that parole is a continuation of a prison sentence” — that parolees were released early. In reality, “everyone released from prison is put on parole. It’s supposed to be a supervision system to help people reenter society successfully.”

Formerly incarcerated Californians are, by and large, enthusiastic about the prospect of participating in the electoral process. In a recent survey by Initiate Justice, covering more than 1,000 parolees and about 4,000 currently incarcerated people across the state, three in four parolees said that regaining the right to vote would help keep them from returning to prison. In addition to expressing a desire to have a say in government, the vast majority of respondents reported being civically active in other ways, such as volunteering and community organizing. Having been denied the ballot seemed to intensify their appreciation of voting rights: Just 37 percent said they had voted prior to incarceration, but nearly all said “they would vote now if they could.”

So how would they vote if they could? Research on past election patterns suggest that restoring the vote to formerly incarcerated people would boost the population of Democratic voters, though the surveys show considerable diversity in party preference, even in solid blue California. But Mauer cautioned against viewing re-enfranchisement simply in partisan terms. “Women got the right to vote 100 years ago,” he said. “I don’t think the issue was, ‘Are they going to vote Democrat or Republican?’, but it was a question of justice and democracy…. We should be deciding this question based on principle, not on partisan terms.”

Rigged Jury

In addition to restrictions on voting, another barrier to civic participation for currently and formerly incarcerated people is their exclusion from jury duty. Jury exclusion arguably has more diffuse effects than denying people the vote, because eligibility for jury duty does not automatically mean one will be selected to serve (the jury screening process is notoriously arbitrary). But over time, advocates say the disqualification of people with felony convictions from jury duty undermines the integrity of the judiciary, ensuring that a person accused of a crime is very unlikely to be judged by someone with direct experience of imprisonment.

James Binnall, a law professor at California State University, Long Beach, is formerly incarcerated himself. He has studied the legal impacts of felony-based jury exclusion, and found no concrete evidence that allowing people with felony convictions into the jury pool would pervert the course of justice. Quite the contrary: Including people with felony convictions as part of a more diverse, inclusive jury pool enhances jury deliberations and simultaneously improves perceptions of the legal system’s integrity in communities where mistrust of government runs high.

Including formerly incarcerated people among the “peers” that may be called for jury duty would help “maintain the reputation of the jury as a fair and legitimate institution,” Binnall told Truthout. At the same time, being barred from serving as a juror sends a degrading message to people like him, who were previously convicted through the same institution: “Exclusions are part of a larger patchwork that tells folks with a criminal record, You’re just not part of our society, and you ought to be on the outside.”

Collateral Consequences

The patchwork of exclusion is woven deeply into the country’s legal history. Jury exclusion dates back to the founding of the United States, and today’s felony-related voting restrictions grew out of racist criminal codes instituted by states after the Civil War in order to suppress the Black vote. As he carries that historical burden into his community today, Cyprian sees regaining access to voting rights and jury service as restitution. Pointing to a historical through line between Jim Crow and the modern-day drug war, he said, “The whole thing about felony disenfranchisement was basically to politically marginalize communities of Black people…. So I think [restoring the vote] is a form of reparations.”

Still, fully re-enfranchising the formerly incarcerated is not just a matter of removing legal bans. Disenfranchisement is entangled with the overlapping indignities of post-prison life — so-called collateral consequences, which can range from debts for court fines and fees, to bans from entering certain professions, to stigma and structural discrimination in housing and employment.

For people struggling to rebuild their lives post-prison, voting is understandably not a top priority, Wanda Bertram of Prison Policy Initiative told Truthout: “It’s all of the collateral consequences of incarceration, not just the explicit restriction on voting, that makes civic participation less likely and less possible for people that have criminal records.” Beyond directly removing disenfranchisement laws, Bertram argued, social-support policies should reach out to formerly incarcerated people “to assist people with criminal records, and to reduce the stigma around a criminal record.” These measures to enhance their economic and social stability, she said, “are also important to increasing civic participation.”

Some studies even indicate that states with strong disenfranchisement laws tend to have lower rates of voter turnout among eligible voters, which suggests that felony disenfranchisement might have a depressive effect on voter motivation in communities heavily impacted by mass incarceration.

For Cyprian, who is piecing his life back together after decades in prison, regaining civic rights is one step on the way to fully restoring his life. “It’s almost like the Maslow’s hierarchy,” he said, citing the psychological trope of triaging human needs from basic survival to social and intellectual rights. “Formerly incarcerated people like myself, we need housing and financial literacy, we need education, we need all these things. And we should be able to vote too.”

He’s hopeful that his fellow Californians will agree when they line up alongside him at the polls in 2020.