Photo courtesy of Michael Fleshman

Vote because you can

Formerly incarcerated Humboldt State student encourages utilizing your right to vote
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Formerly incarcerated Humboldt State student encourages utilizing your right to vote

When I was released from Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility in 2014, I was told three things: I could no longer receive government assistance (like food stamps), I was no longer eligible for financial aid (FAFSA), and lastly I had lost my right to vote.

At that time, to be honest, I only cared about the first two. Voting was the last thing on my mind when I was stumbling my way back into society and trying to forget what I had seen while I was incarcerated. But as time went on I was getting more involved in my community and volunteer outreach, and voting became more important.

I say that because there were candidates on the ballot in Sonoma County that would further help organizations I was working with and others that wouldn’t. I became more interested and started to understand the interdependence.

Although I was keeping track of the candidates running for office, I knew it didn’t matter because I couldn’t even vote for any of them. That all changed when in 2015, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla announced that the state would settle litigation over laws that had barred low-level felony offenders under community supervision from voting.

This meant that myself and tens of thousands of others who had lost their voting right could vote for the 2016 election. (Bernie lost, but I still feel like my vote mattered, and if anything else I experienced a sense of freedom with casting a ballot.)

The Sentencing Project estimates that nearly six million Americans cannot vote as a result of previous criminal convictions. We may think we’re quite progressive in California, but Maine and Vermont are the only two states that allow voting rights be retained for those still in prison.

According to Nonprofit Vote, there are 15 states ahead of California that allow automatic voting rights restored the second you are released from prison. California doesn’t even do that. In blue states like Colorado and New York, you can only vote until you’re off parole.

Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky are the three states where voting rights can only be restored through individual petition to the government. So even if you do your time and are off parole or probation, you still have no right to vote. They layer punishment atop punishment atop punishment.

If re-entry programs are supposed to help those integrate back into society, but our political voice is taken away, then it undermines the entire purpose of the sentencing. If I pay taxes and am affected day to day by political figures both nationally and locally, then why would I not be able to act on my right to vote?

According to the Prison Policy Initiative there are 242,000 people behind bars in California. That means there is a quarter of a million people who are unable to vote in this state. The Sentencing Project also said that Black Americans are five times more likely to be imprisoned than White Americans, giving more evidence of the modern day slavery that is our prison-industrial complex.

We may think we live in a democratic country, but voter suppression is still happening. Crooked politicians are finding loopholes to keep people from casting their ballot. If voting doesn’t matter, then why would voter suppression be such a big issue?

According to the Brenna Center for Justice, there is a growing range of threats to voting for the 2018 election. North Dakota has been blessed by the Supreme Court for strict voter ID laws that will make it harder for Native Americans to vote. Texas adopted a similar strict voting law and Georgia has passed stricter voter registration that will create hurdles for minority voters.

The Brenna Center for Justice found that there has been a huge increase of vote purging in the states of Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, meaning that names identified for removal are determined by faulty criteria that wrongly suggests a voter be deleted from the rolls.

These are just a few examples of how voter suppression is taking form before the 2018 elections, although this has always been happening. Our government have been suppressing votes for as long as they have been an entity.

Know who is running for office. Know the measures and propositions. Whether or not you think your vote doesn’t matter, you will be affected by whatever passes or what doesn’t. When you vote, you are voting for everyone who can’t.

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