Californians will vote in November on whether to restore voting rights to people who are released from prison during parole.
Jay Jordan, who went to prison in 2004 at the age of 18 for a robbery, said the ballot measure, Proposition 17, is long overdue.
“When I got out, I tried hard to participate in democracy and I couldn’t,” said Jordan, who is now 35 and the executive director at nonprofit Californians for Safety and Justice.“I tried hard to find jobs and I couldn’t. It was devastating and the only thing that was holding me up was my family saying that you are worthy. The law didn’t provide me redemption.”
Upon his release in 2012, he was barred from voting as he was on parole. He wasn’t able to sign up to vote until he was released from parole three years later.
“I think about the right to vote and I think about the pictures of my ancestors,” he said. “My dad lived in Jim Crow South, in Oklahoma where black folks didn’t have the right to vote. My grandmother marched for the right to vote … The moral compass of this country switched when people woke up and said: ‘The right to vote is every Americans’ right.’”
City leaders in San Francisco have rallied behind Proposition 17, saying that denying parolees voting rights exacerbates voter suppression and disproportionately impacts people of color. The Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last year supporting the legislation, citing the fact that nearly 50,000 Californians were unable to vote even though they have served their sentence for a felony conviction.
“Florida voters voted to allow people on parole to vote,” state Sen. Scott Wiener, who represents San Francisco, told the crowd at a rally in City Hall on July 4. “The governor of Iowa, a Republican [and] a conservative, just came out in support of allowing people on parole [to vote]. We need to do it here in California.”
The Election Integrity Project California opposed the measure last year, arguing that parolees are still short of repaying the debts for their crimes and they have not “regained the full trust of the society at large, nor the privilege to participate as a full member of that society.”
“The question is: Do we believe in redemption?” Jordan said.
Assemblymember Kevin McCarty, who authored the legislation to place Prop 17 on the ballot, echoed the sentiments of Jordan, stating that parole isn’t meant to punish.
“Parole is intended to be a period of reintegration into the community,” McCarty, who represents Sacramento, wrote in an email. “People on parole who have completed their prison sentences raise families, hold jobs, pay taxes, and contribute to society in every other way.”
Research has shown that people with felony convictions whose voting rights are restored may have stronger levels of trust in the government, and become more willing to cooperate with the police and the criminal justice system.
Jordan added that many of those who leave prison like himself already face far-reaching lifetime bans. With a 2-year-old son and another on the way, he said he would never be able coach Little League nor volunteer at their schools.
Restoring voting rights for parolees, therefore, is a step in the right direction to help the formerly incarcerated restore their sense of agency, he said.
“It’s a very small gesture that has a huge impact for someone’s ability to exist and reintegrate back into society,” he said.