Your ability to vote is your ability to shout. Your ability to vote is your responsibility in our American democracy, your opportunity to play a role in mending our governing doctrines – your seat at the table. Yet many of us do not realize that our vote is a privilege. In California, state prisoners and parolees were barred from voting, deprived of their constitutional right to shout, until Prop 17 was passed just last week on November 3, 2020. Here is why this is a success for our American democracy.
The goal of parole is to provide a former felon a time period in which he or she can prepare to reintegrate themselves into society. During this time, they are closely monitored for the purpose of preventing a reoffense and protecting the civilians close to them, so they can productively learn to become independent members of their communities. However, parolees and former felons face countless forms of discrimination when trying to do just this. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of 27%, which exceeds the U.S. unemployment rate during any period of history – even the Great Depression. Moreover, the CARES Act, which provides relief for small business owners, specifically asks on its loan application if the applicant or “any individual owning 20% or more of the equity of the applicant subject to an indictment, criminal information, arraignment, or other means by which formal criminal charges are brought in any jurisdiction, or presently incarcerated, or on probation or parole,” according to USA Today, which not only excludes formerly convicted business owners from relief, but also discourages them from even applying. Depriving this population of suffrage only further disconnected them from the world in which they are trying so fervently to reenter. Imprisonment should be punishment for a deed done, not a lifetime of ostracization. The label “formerly convicted felon” is going to be a phrase masking their true potential, intentions, and assets from future employers, family members, friends, and spouses for the rest of their lives. The right to vote should not be something one has to earn, or has to have achieved some sort of status to exercise. Voting is a constitutional right granted to citizens of the United States – regardless of their pasts, regardless of their imperfections, regardless of their mistakes. And by passing Prop 17, California has committed more wholeheartedly to this statement.
And unfortunately, barring parolees from voting also means stimultaneously barring entire ethnic groups from voting. According to the Sentencing Project, African Americans are imprisoned in state jails nationwide at more than five times the rate of white people. More specifically in California, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, 28.5% of our state’s male prisoners are African American, compared to the 5.6% of the state’s male residents. And for Latino men, the imprisonment rate is 1016 per 100,000 people, compared to the rate for white men, which is 422 per 100,000 (PPIC). Thus, parolees in California are very much more likely to be people of color, and by depriving them of the right to vote, we are depriving our government from millions of diverse voices and insights. Our democracy is not truly a democracy if it only functions in accordance to the desires of wealthy, white civilians; our democracy needs to survey the needs of all, not just a select few. That way, our government can construct policy that caters to the unique struggles of a plethora of populations and groups – not just the rich and white. By allowing parolees to vote, we are setting the stage for a government that is more familiar with every single crevice of the American fabric, one that will work for both the voices they can hear clearly and those that have been cruelly suppressed in the past.
California’s Proposition 17 not only gives the constitutional right of suffrage to a population that deserves it, but also helps to ensure that everyone in our democracy, all ethnicities and backgrounds, are given the opportunity to shout just as forcefully as everyone else. It is a success worth celebrating.