A week ago, the country celebrated National Voter Registration Day. Like Election Day, it is not a federal holiday that workers have off to ensure they are prepared to vote. Instead, it has evolved into a social media awareness campaign for the ongoing election cycle by using celebrity endorsements to chide the public into action.
A key failing of National Voter Registration Day and its proponents is the lack of emphasis on people who face obstacles with voting, specifically in relation to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. The needs of these Americans are different. Rather than be reminded of deadlines and polling locations, these Americans need campaigns that educate them on what government entities they need to interact with, what forms they need to fill out and what criteria they need to meet. As such, an Instagram live with a California-based actress and a New York-based activist is not going to include instructions accessible by those who need it most. The work that needs to be done, like the harm that preceded it, is more complex than that.
A pure democracy would deem the right to vote as an inalienable right, but currently there are approximately 6 million Americans disenfranchised due to felony convictions. This is directly linked to the inhumane treatment of Black people and the need for free labor. Following the end of the Civil War, three amendments, collectively called the Reconstruction Amendments, were passed. Two are expressly relevant to the current crisis of mass incarceration and mass disenfranchisement. The 13th Amendment, the first of the Reconstruction Amendments, provided that “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” shall exist in this country except as punishment for crime. The 15th Amendment, the last Reconstruction Amendment, guaranteed the right of citizens to vote, regardless of race, color or previous condition of servitude. The 13th Amendment’s loophole for involuntary slavery and the 15th Amendment’s lack of voting protection for those convicted of a felony is obvious and purposeful.
Following passage of the 15th Amendment, a number of states either enacted or strengthened voting bans for those with felony convictions. For instance, the Florida state constitution was amended in 1868 to disenfranchise felons and the Kentucky state constitution adopted a lifetime voting ban in 1891 for those convicted of a felony (at least 48 states still have similar requirements). At the same time, states began reclassifying minor infractions as felonies to result in an increase in disenfranchisement. This phenomenon is known as Black Codes: laws intended to police the Black community and punish violations with severe penalties. The result—Black people incarcerated and disenfranchised at four times the rate of non-Blacks—was the next best thing to enslavement. So long as felon disenfranchisement remains in place, simple get-out-the-vote campaigns won’t accomplish the work that needs to get done.
Formerly incarcerated people need localized trainings that will teach them how to become re-enfranchised. This is not just because the requirements vary from state to state, but because individuals in differing circumstances will often need individualized help. For example, in states like Texas where you need a valid ID to vote, or Florida where all restitution, fines and fees must be paid, the work does not end once you have told would-be voters they need an ID or they need to cut a check. These folks will need customized help to understand how one, perhaps with no social security card or disposable income, can find solutions they need.
In fact, simply telling these folks to just cast a ballot and hope for the best can and has had disastrous results. As such, there needs to be more done to facilitate reentry into the electorate—sharing deadlines and shaming voters into participation is not enough.
Like all fruitful activism, this will be timely and expensive. It’s exactly why the work being done at places like Root & Rebound in downtown Oakland of facilitating formerly incarcerated folks in re-entering society by helping them find transitional housing, education programs, counseling and more is so vitally important to our democracy. It’s why fundraisers to pay modern-day poll taxes deserve to be centered in conversations about getting out the vote.
The alternative — not just for misunderstandings by formerly incarcerated folks, but a lack of consensus when election results are returned — is far too damaging to every community. As such, it’s time for allies to show up and do the uncomfortable work. Contribute to campaigns that pay off formerly incarcerated folks’ restitution and fees. Volunteer with local organizations that help with re-entry into society. For a while now, sharing a post is not enough.
Knychelle Passmore is a law student at University of California, Berkeley School of Law and co-president of the Law Students of African Descent.