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Many Former Prisoners Don't Know They Are Eligible to Vote

If you are on probation, your right to vote is never taken away.
 
 
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Painting by Tony Papa

 

The right to vote is an important part of being an American citizen. Despite this, several state legislatures have introduced bills that would make it harder for some people to exercise their right to vote. This effort is unprecedented in scope, well-coordinated and carefully targeted.  African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, students, working women, seniors, and immigrants of all colors will be disproportionately affected. What we're facing is the most aggressive attempt to roll back voting rights in over a century.

Today, voter suppression takes many forms, including  attacks on early and Sunday voting to make voting harder for working people; photo ID requirements for voting and registration that introduce the first financial barrier to voting since the poll tax; and the same  racially motivated ex-felon bans. I personally have been affected by this.

When I was released from prison after serving 12 years under the Rockefeller Drug Laws,  I had no clue about my eligibility to cast a vote. When I went to register to vote I was shocked when they informed me that I had to wait until I was released from parole. I felt the  pain of felony disenfranchisement since it seemed I was being further punished for my crime. I saw my Queens neighborhood deteriorating around me, but I was powerless to do anything about it by casting my vote. I was elated when, after waiting for five years, I got off parole and was able to cast my first vote since being released from prison. I felt like society had fully welcomed me back as a citizen.

Millions of people convicted of felonies will be barred from voting in the upcoming presidential election. This is a mind-boggling number of people who will be disenfranchised. The most alarming aspect is that many of them are eligible to vote, but they don't know it.

In New York State, if you are convicted of a felony, you automatically lose your right to vote. According to the Legal Action Center, your right to vote is restored once you have completed either parole or your maximum sentence. If you are on probation, your right to vote is never taken away. But most ex-felons do not know this, so they do not vote. This amounts to hundreds of thousands of individuals who incorrectly assume they are banned from voting for life.

You may wonder why prisoners are not notified of this right. I think the problem lies in the voting system itself. In New York it was discovered that one-third of election officials did not know that individuals on probation could vote. To fix this problem, states must better train election officials and eliminate complicated registration procedures and paperwork to make sure criminal defendants are fully informed about their voting rights.

As I wrote in a letter to the editor of the New York Times:

"Exercising the right to vote should be an important part of a prisoner's rehabilitation. It's an act that makes one feel whole again following years of losing those rights. If, through voting, individuals can become involved in the political process, they have a much better chance of fully integrating back into society."

Anthony Papa, author of 15 To Life: How I Painted My Way To Freedom, is Manager of Media Relations for the Drug Policy Alliance.