I Haven't Voted in Years Because I Once Went to Jail - Give Me My Vote Back
Fifteen years ago, I made my way through the corridors of Newark Liberty International Airport, ticket in hand, an American citizen bound for Switzerland. I never got on that flight. Instead, I was arrested on a drug charge. I haven’t voted since.
Last week, life returned me to a terminal at Newark airport, once again destined for Switzerland. This time I boarded, arriving in Geneva as part of NAACP’s delegation to address the United Nations human rights committee – a meeting full of important issues with difficult answers but one problem that could be fixed in this country very soon: restoring the rights of nearly 6 million former American felons who have been disenfranchised.
Much has changed in my life between these two trips. I took a plea as a first-time offender to conspiracy to possess cocaine. I served seven months in a federal prison in Texas, where I was subjected to strip searches every other day after being sent into a forest to chop trees. I spent one year in a halfway house in Brooklyn, and then three years on supervised release – one year earlier than projected.
I graduated from college with a degree in criminal justice. I found a job and paid my taxes. I became a mother, graduated from law school and passed the New York State Bar Exam. (Even though my rights were restored last year, the collateral effects from not being able to take the Florida bar upon graduation have had significant financial impact on me and my family.)
Despite my time served and my accomplishments as a legitimate contributing member of society, my fundamental right to vote in Florida was denied – along with several other rights that are supposed to be inalienable in America.
The United States passively accepts the existence of second-class citizenship. Rather than provide an opportunity for automatic restoration of voting rights, Florida imposes a subjective review process that leaves the formerly incarcerated with no clear standard to meet: intrusive and uninformed questions about financial stability, substance abuse and HIV/AIDS – none of which are barriers to voting for those not convicted of crimes, nor should they ever be.
Indeed, I am not alone. Millions of people who served their time are deprived of access to the ballot box, with 48 states practicing some form of felony disenfranchisement to this day. This is largely thanks to a draconian policy from the 1800s that punishes the formerly incarcerated. Originally rooted in a racist effort to keep African-American men from casting a ballot, felony disenfranchisement continues to have that impact today, while impacting many others as well.
Attorney General Eric Holder recently called on states to reform felon disenfranchisement laws. But in some states, including and especially Florida, which is no stranger to voting rights issues, even that push doesn’t go far enough.
As I stated before the UN committee, while grateful for Holder’s speech, words will not be enough. The power of millions to exercise their most fundamental tool of influence – their most American of American rights – is being repressed. I asked the panel in Geneva what concrete steps are being taken by the US government to force states to address this human rights violation that runs afoul of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is an arcane process with easy answers: automatic restoration of voting rights upon the completion of a sentence – or, as in Vermont and Maine, never stripping a felon of his or her voting rights in the first place.
American citizens who are incarcerated and formerly incarcerated are restricted from voting, but they are counted in the census. That is, we are included in calculations for creating voting districts. This violates a basic principle of American democracy and government; democracy simply does not exist when millions of people are restricted from voting like that.
It’s amazing how life comes full-circle. Now that I’ve finally made my way to Switzerland and back, maybe the American criminal justice system can do away with its infinite loop of abstruse voting rules and welcome many more citizens like me back home, equally.