It shouldn’t matter that my right to vote was taken away because I was sent to prison. What should matter –and what matters to me– is that I earned it back. I’m proud of that.
My right to vote does a lot for me, too, starting with being a happy reminder that the state of California and I have settled our differences amicably. I tend to think less of slackers who come up with excuses not to vote, which can be a dialogue-friendly counterbalance to feeling “less than” because of the criminal record stigma I’ll always have.
I like it when others assume that, as a convicted felon, I’m not allowed to vote, because answering that my vote was restored once my parole requirements were complete boosts my sense of purpose. Successful parolees in all 50 states should have it as lucky as I do when it comes to electoral eligibility, and being vocal about that is important.
Attorney General Eric Holder, the leading voice on criminal-justice reforms, called the impact of state laws preventing convicted felons from voting even after they’ve served their sentences “disproportionate and unacceptable.” In a recent Georgetown University speech, Holder cited the roughly 5.8 million Americans who are prohibited from voting because of felony convictions.
Among those 5.8 million are people like me, who’d like to fulfill their civic duties and add that humbling single vote to their self-image.
Say what you will about your vote not counting because it’s all alone in this big corrupt world. And say what you will about Congress, boring ‘ol politics, or how things never change. When your right to vote has been taken away and won back the hard way, your insights allow you to forgive a certain degree of government apathy – but not excuse inaction.
Because state and federal agencies can’t predict what might get the attention of a criminal offender, one of the secrets to genuinely reducing recidivism is casting a wide net where each crisscrossing strand is an incentive to reengage. Restoring voting rights for ex-cons is just one strand in the net, yet it can help pull offenders from cycling through the system. What rang my bell were the writing instructors and teachers working in the various facilities to which I’d been sent; they saw potential in me I couldn’t see in myself. That’s my story, but it’s not unique. Lots of other convicted felons answer the call to apply themselves in new and better ways too. So while restoring voting rights in all 50 states isn’t the answer to recidivism, it is part of the answer.
The bottom line is this: even if casting a vote won’t empower me much as a citizen, entering a polling place to find someone waiting to check me off a list for a good reason is part of what keeps me out of prison.