Before having his sentence commuted by Governor Gavin Newsom last year, Thanh Tran served ten and a half years in prisons and jails across California, a time he described as the “most traumatizing and dehumanizing experience of my life”.
Had he been able to vote during that time, he said he would have maintained some hope that his community still cared about him.
“The focus of incarceration right now in California is about punishment, but if I had the ability to vote, it would still create that tie to the community,” said Tran, now a policy associate with the Oakland-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. It would be like the community saying, “Thanh, we still care about you out here,” he said. “We know your sentence will one day end and we want you to return home and be a good neighbor to us.”
Now Tran is a leading supporter of ACA 4, a constitutional amendment introduced last week by California assemblymember Isaac Bryan that would restore voting rights to California’s prisoners – a population that is disproportionately non-white.
California is one of at least three states where lawmakers this year have introduced proposals to allow citizens to vote while serving time for felonies in state and federal prison. Democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts and New York have also filed bills and amendments to end felony disenfranchisement.
If any of the proposals succeed, the states would join Maine, Vermont and Washington DC in allowing people to vote while incarcerated. Along with the states restoring rights to people with felony convictions upon release from prison, this marks a time when states are slowly erasing Jim Crow-era laws that have prevented people with felony convictions from ever fully regaining their rights.
But advocates still face steep challenges.
While Washington DC successfully ended felony disenfranchisement in July 2020 when the city council passed a bill unanimously, the efforts this year will face uphill battles, and other states that have attempted to do the same in recent years have run into roadblocks. In Oregon, a legislative attempt stalled in early 2022, despite strong support from Democratic lawmakers. And legislation proposed in Illinois also stalled in committee. Similar unsuccessful bills have also been introduced in Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Mexico and Virginia.
Across the country, an estimated 4.6 million Americans are barred from voting due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy group focused on decarceration. The rate at which African Americans are disenfranchised currently is 3.5 times higher than non-African Americans.
When Bryan, who chairs the California assembly’s election committee and has a background in criminal justice advocacy, was elected to represent a portion of Los Angeles in the legislature, he started thinking about how policy could better connect incarcerated people with their communities. He said he realized that cutting people off from society by revoking their right to vote doesn’t benefit anyone. “People touch the criminal legal system because they felt disconnected from society,” he said. “Disconnecting them further doesn’t make any of us safer.”
“Overall democracy thrives when everyone is included, and that includes people who are currently incarcerated,” he added.
Of the more than 95,000 people in the California state prison system, 80% are people of color or people from poor and disadvantaged communities, according to Antoinette Ratcliffe, executive director of California-based non-profit Initiate Justice.
For that reason, Bryan, who represents part of Los Angeles, says ending California’s practice is a matter of racial justice. “We know that our criminal legal system is full of bias and we know that it disproportionately exacerbates the negative conditions of life for Black, brown, poor, indigenous communities.”
Bryan noted that the vast majority of California’s prisoners will return home, and allowing them to maintain a connection to their communities lowers recidivism rates and helps their potential for success.
To become law, the constitutional amendment would need to pass with a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the legislature and then be approved by a majority of voters on the ballot.
If passed, incarcerated people would cast ballots at their last place of residence before being incarcerated. California has eliminated prison gerrymandering, meaning people are counted for purposes of reapportionment where they last resided instead of at their prison location – a practice that can be manipulated to give people living in localities with prisons disproportionate representation.
Bryan also pointed out that California currently allows people serving time in jail for offenses other than felonies to vote inside the jail, so “questions about whether you can facilitate an election in a carceral setting have already been answered through that process”.
Assemblymember Tom Lackey, a Republican who serves as vice-chair of the election committee, shared his opposition to the proposal, tweeting: “Criminal acts should have consequences. Voting is a sacred privilege, not an absolute right of citizenship.”
California’s proposal comes at a time when other states are also considering expanding their electorate to include more people with felony convictions. The number of people disenfranchised due to felony convictions nationally has declined by 24% since 2016, according to the Sentencing Project, as states have changed their policies and state prison populations have declined modestly.
A number of states have taken measures in recent years to extend voting rights to people on probation and parole, including California, where voters approved Proposition 17 in 2020, allowing people on parole to vote. California is now one of 21 states where people lose their right to vote while incarcerated but regain the right upon release.
This year, the Democratic-controlled Minnesota house of representatives passed a bill that would restore voting rights to individuals on parole, probation or community release, and now the bill heads to the state senate, which is also controlled by Democrats. In Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Texas and Virginia, lawmakers have also proposed bills to ease restrictions on voting rights for people with felony convictions.
Progress has been stymied in other states, including North Carolina, which restored voting rights to roughly 56,000 people on parole and probation before the 2022 election. But the now Republican-controlled state supreme court heard a challenge to the law in early February and appears poised to roll back that expansion.
Bryan said he hopes his proposed constitutional amendment will get more states thinking about restoring voting rights to everyone.
“As we lead in California, a lot of the rest of the country follows,” Bryan said. “I think that’s a good thing and it’s an opportunity to show what change can look like and what progress can look like.”
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