By Betty McKay
I remember vividly what election season looked and felt like in my community growing up. In the days leading up to the election, candidates would flood the neighborhood making exciting promises about investing in our communities and always having our backs, and on Election Day my neighbors would get into their Sunday best – suits, dresses, hats, and all – to vote together before gathering at our Baptist church for an evening celebration.
But while my community always voted, our lives never improved. And because of that – the lack of meaningful change, despite all the fanfare – I came to doubt the value of my right to vote and the power it supposedly gave me.
Twenty-seven years of incarceration changed that. It took that right being ripped away from me to fully understand its power. It’s the power to shape our reality; the power, for example, to put into place and maintain a criminal legal system rooted in the marginalization of Black and brown Americans – the same system that today denies the right to vote of almost 50,000 Californians even after they return home from prison.
On November 3, the power of the vote can strike a blow against this broken, unjust system with the approval of Proposition 17, which will return the right to vote to those 50,000 people.
Since returning from prison, I’ve made it my life’s mission to advocate for myself, my loved ones, and my fellow incarcerated brothers and sisters. I’ve been an organizer with some of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations – from NAN to Justice LA to Initiate Justice – working to help Black and brown communities across America understand the power of the vote. And as I’ve traveled the country, I’ve found that the strongest and most powerful community advocates often are formerly incarcerated people.
This is a reflection of how the vote shapes the society we live in. But it also reflects something darker: American laws have been brutally effective in dehumanizing and discriminating against Black people because of the color of our skin.
Another way the criminal legal system keeps our communities down is where it intersects with our democracy. In the 19th-century, California enacted its current voting ban to prevent Black citizens from exercising political power. That same law, a relic of a shameful history, now excludes tens of thousands of Californians in our communities from our democracy.
Proposition 17 is an opportunity to return a basic right to Californian citizens that should have never been torn from them in the first place; to restore the voices of those who should never have been silenced.
My formerly incarcerated brothers and sisters want to vote because we understand the power of our voices.
When I was incarcerated, I organized a mock election for the 2012 presidential election. My friends told me no one would use their precious free time to wait in line to vote in a fake election. Sixty-two percent of us voted. For comparison, only 57 percent of voting-age Americans voted in the 2012 presidential elections.
We want to vote.
The road I traveled doesn’t have to be the road others are forced to follow. I was deprived of my right to vote when I returned home from prison, and only in the last month – after three years of waiting — my right has finally been returned. But, there are still thousands more who won’t get to have a say in one of the most consequential elections of our lifetimes.
California voters have the opportunity this year to make sure that doesn’t happen again in our state – we can make this election the last election where members of our communities are excluded from voting.
Approval of Proposition 17 is only a single step toward correcting a history steeped in racial discrimination, but it is an essential step. Approval would send a powerful message that California is ready to turn the page on that dark chapter.
Betty McKay is a Bay Area resident and an organizer with Initiate Justice, an organization dedicated to ending mass incarceration by activating the political power of the people it directly impacts. She was incarcerated for 27 years and returned to society three years ago.