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Life Without a Vote

The Democracy Restoration Act would restore federal voting rights to the 6 million Americans not allowed to vote due to a past criminal conviction — like me.

  • Bruce Reilly
July 23, 2012

Crossposted at The Guardian.

With another presidential election approaching, there is growing discussion about the fact that up to 6 million American citizens have been disenfranchised — many for life — due to a felony conviction. They (along with millions more who can vote) were never told that their voting rights would be lost, suspended or — perhaps — restored; or that, even years after release and re-integration, moving across a state line could subject them to this cycle all over again.

I know this, because I am one of the 6 million who lost his right to vote.

Like me, anyone with a conviction who wants to vote must first navigate a patchwork of laws that change at every state line. Our historical arc toward expanding voting rights is frustrated in states like Florida, where felons couldn’t vote, then could, and now can’t again. People living in similar “life without a vote” states (Virginia, Kentucky and Iowa) could move to some states and find their right restored. Or an individual whose voting rights have been restored could move to one of these permanent disenfranchisement states and find herself stripped of an essential badge of citizenship.

When I was released, in 2005, Rhode Island would not allow probationers or parolees to vote, and Rhode Island is a state with probation terms that can last decades. In 2006, a small group of activists and organizations came together in that state to ask voters whether they would allow people on probation and parole to vote. I was one of those activists, and I cared about vital issues, just like other residents in my neighborhood. The chair of the parole board and other members of the law enforcement community publicly supported our efforts. Fortunately, the people of Rhode Island agreed.

In 2008, my first vote was a concrete step along the path of changing my life. I felt like a true member of my community, and I appreciated the chance to agree or disagree with others through a peaceful process. I knew that my vote would be counted along with those in my community, city, and state — a true representative democracy. I was part of a better way … for a short while.

Then, I moved to the great state of Louisiana. That’s when I lost my right to vote, for a second time, under a new set of laws — a right I had fought so hard to restore. Now, my daughter has lost my voice for her on education and healthcare, two issues that mean more to me after having a child. My neighbors, who would like me to participate in the decisions that affect our ward and our community, have also lost a voice. And I feel less connected, less invested, less wanted — even by the amazing people of New Orleans.

Someday, my daughter will become aware of my complicated past, but this does not need to deter me from setting an example for her. Others in my shoes also want to be role models for the next person striving for rehabilitation and redemption. We want to build a community that handles disputes in a peaceful manner, honoring all voices and opinions, particularly in some of the troubled areas where many of us live.

My daughter was born after that 2008 election, and neither of us will be allowed in the booth this year. She won’t be able to wear my “I Voted” sticker. And now, if we are walking down the street and someone asks if I’ll vote for this candidate or that, I have to reply, “Sorry, I’m not allowed to vote.”

I know there are thousands of people in New Orleans who can’t vote. I think back to those of us who got involved in Rhode Island, to what seems like glory days, when both Republicans and Democrats would expect me to share with them intricate facets of the criminal justice system. No matter what side of a position they were on (I never assumed they had one), it felt amazing to help expand the truly pro-social act of voting. I want everyone to know that feeling and be part of our society, rather than feel that our nation would prefer to pay for us to live in prison than let us have rights in the community.

Fortunately, there are solutions to the current patchwork of disenfranchisement laws: namely, the Democracy Restoration Act. This federal legislation would permit every American in every state to vote in federal elections, once they have been released from prison. Whether someone is on probation, on parole, or finished their sentence years ago, people living in the community would finally have a full opportunity to participate in those communities, and in our democracy. The bill is an important acknowledgment that the U.S. cannot afford to exclude millions of families from the ballot box, and hollow out civic participation at a time when we truly need it.

I hope that when my daughter turns 18, we can walk into the polling place together, wherever we live, and come out wearing our stickers. She will know that, despite my mistakes, I am dedicated to improving my community, and my country — by exercising my right to vote.