A couple weeks ago, I watched the final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden as millions of other Americans did. But for me, it was an exercise in futility. As much as I want to vote, I can’t. I was a prisoner at California’s San Quentin State Prison until last January, and I’m out on parole. Under California law, a parolee does not have the right to vote.
My situation is not extraordinary. According to the Sentencing Project’s Oct. 14 report, I am one of 5.2 million Americans, who cannot vote because they’ve been convicted of a felony. Even though I served more than 28 years in prison to pay for second-degree murder, I’m still not allowed what is arguably the most basic right of a citizen.
The United States is among the most punitive nations in the world when it comes to denying its citizens a vote. Eleven states take away felons’ voting rights indefinitely for certain crimes. Another 21 states require a waiting period, often while the felon is on probation or parole. Only 18 states plus the District of Columbia immediately restore felons’ voting rights after they are released from prison. And you have to be incarcerated in Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia to actually retain voting rights while in prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
By comparison most of the countries in Europe allow prisoners to vote when released. Canada, South Africa and Israel allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated. Even Yigal Amir, Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin’s assassin and one of the most despised citizens in the country, has had his voting rights upheld.
The United States must change the way it thinks about felons’ voting rights. It’s certainly started to do that. Twelve states have already loosened voting restrictions for felons in the last four years. But next week on Election Day voters in the largest state in the country, California, can give this movement an enormous boost. Currently, prisoners and parolees like me can’t vote in California. Proposition 17 will change that and give every felon out on parole in California, like me, the right to cast a ballot. I can’t cast a ballot in favor of Prop. 17, for President or anything else on Tuesday. But I hope it might be the last time that happens to me.
Opponents of measures like Prop. 17 say that loss of voting privileges is not an additional punishment for being convicted of a felony, it is part of the punishment. No one told me that. I thought being incarcerated and losing my job, my home, my children’s birthdays, graduations and marriages for 28 years was my punishment. I thought the goal of releasing me back into society was to encourage me to restart my life — to get a job, rebuild my family, participate in my community, and be counted … to vote.
I also think prisoners should be allowed to vote while incarcerated, though Proposition 17 doesn’t address this issue. Among the many objections to this are those who contend that prisoners disrupt elections. They say the incarcerated would be swing votes in close local contests. But that doesn’t have to happen. Prisoners could continue to be registered in their pre-prison locations. I love America deeply, and even though I was away from home for a long time, I still had great concern for my community. My family and friends were still there. Prison was never my home.
The restoration of voting rights to convicted felons seem to particularly worry Republicans because they think Democrats will benefit, but that is not necessarily true. I have met and know many prisoners that are very conservative in their political views and have strong opinions on issues like birth control, immigration and foreign policy. They would vote solely for Republican-endorsed candidates and issues.
I understand that some will say I’m the worst spokesman for this issue. After all, I killed another human with a bullet. I’d say I’m exactly the person who should be speaking up. I know what it’s like to lose my right to vote. And now that the State of California has released me from custody, I know how important voting will be to my future success as an American citizen.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. The Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned. The work is lightly edited but has not been otherwise fact-checked.