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

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."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.