Survey Saturday: Voting Rights for the Formerly Incarcerated

black inmatesEarly this month, we attended a two-day conference in Watts put on by the Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted People’s Movement, which is trying to sort through the patchwork quilt of state laws governing the voting rights of prisoners, parolees, probationers, and former prisoners.

Many of the more than 100 attendees were “formerly incarcerated” themselves, others were family members, and yet others were activists, all looking to restore voting rights to the many hundreds of thousands of American citizens who have been locked up in the past or are locked up now.

Bottom line, the effort seems to be to help these individuals stay connected to society so that they can get off the back-to-prison cycle: As California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris often says, 70% of released prisoners in this state will be back in custody within two years.

Bruce Reilly, one of the conference’s organizers and a “formerly incarcerated” himself, puts the point of the conference this way:

“There are millions of people who have been incarcerated, millions more who have been on probation, and countless with a loved one trying to negotiate the lifetime of punishment and second class status that often attaches for life. When these voices step out of the shadows to be heard a shift in consciousness occurs. We are not statistics in a report, not clients needing services; we are neighbors and families who are needed as fully participating members, if not leaders, in our communities.Our survey this week, then, was more of a pop quiz — but a deadly serious one — designed to show just how pervasively our prison-industrial system is broken.

felons voting rights

Roughly how many Americans are denied the right the vote because of criminal records?

First, we asked how many Americans are denied the right to vote because of criminal records, which only a few of you (16%) knew to be between 5 and 7 million; it’s 5.3 million according to a New York Times article. The largest number of you guessed the number to be more than 7 million (43%), which does show our awareness of this problem.

Next, we asked what two states currently allow incarcerated individuals to vote, as some other nations do — notably Israel and Canada. After the largest percentage (29%) guessed that none of our choices were correct, the next highest was correct with Vermont and Maine (25%).

Notably, as pointed out at the Watts conference, states in the Deep South were most restrictive, while these two northern states with small populations of people of color are the most progressive.

felons voting

What two states currently allow incarcerated individuals to vote?

Race is clearly an issue with voting rights and the entire prison-industrial complex. Fully 60% of our prison population are Black or Hispanic, even though those group comprise just 29% of the US population. Again demonstrating awareness, most respondents estimated either 60% of the prison population (36% of you) or 70% of prisoners (39% of you) are either black or brown.

Here in California, people who have a felony conviction are only barred from voting if they are still in state prison or on parole. Off parole or on probation, they can still vote — though much of the Watts conference focused on the issue of informing the formerly incarcerated that they can and should vote.

felons voting

In 2009, Blacks and Hispanics constituted 28.9% of the US population. What percentage of the US prison population was also Black or Hispanic?

High percentages of survey takers had this question right, with 36% saying individuals who have completed probation can vote and 50% saying that those who have completed parole can vote. Still, 47% said a felony conviction would prevent a person from every voting in California, which is true in some other states, but not here.

Thoughts on what should be done for felons and the right to vote were split. As the full set of remarks not he next page show, there was a contingent who think that felons should simply not vote, at least until they have somehow proven themselves:

“No vote to dirt bags. Felonies are MAJOR crimes.”

felons voting

In California, a US citizen can vote if they (check all that are true):

Others were more measured:

“If the person is in jail, he should not be able to vote unless he is there only pending charges and hasn’t made bail. After the person has served their sentence in full and completed probation and/or parole, their voting rights should be restored as they will have paid their debt to society. Prisoners lose many rights being incarcerated. The right to vote is one they should lose for committing serious crimes against the nation’s citizens.”

And a great many side with restoring voting rights across the board:

“We have become one of the most repressive states among the more developed countries in the world. We need to back off and look at first, putting fewer people in prison, especially for nonviolent crimes and then focus on rehabilitation again. Granting offenders the right to vote right along reminds them — and us — that they are citizens, too.”

dick priceThis week, with LA’s Civic Fathers (and Mothers) pondering a huge payout to build a professional football stadium downtown and a storied college football franchise in shambles from a child rape and coverup scandal, we’ll take a look at the role of sports in society.

Dick Price


  1. Jack says

    Thank you for this very insightful article. Felonies are not always MAJOR crimes. I know someone who was caught shoplifting and who got scared and ran into the bathroom. Since she ran away, she was charged with a felony. She was stealing toys for her kids. Stupid thing to do, but not a dangerous criminal, right? They left her in jail for a month without bail (on a shoplifting charge!), and then told her she’d have to cop to a felony conviction if she wanted to get out for Christmas. She did so, and now can’t vote. Not all felonies are what they seem to be.

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