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My First Vote is a compil­a­tion of stor­ies from people across the coun­try who voted for the first time in Novem­ber 2008 after having lost, and then regained, their right to vote follow­ing a crim­inal convic­tion.

Read the Testi­mon­ies


Fore­word

My First Vote is a compil­a­tion of stor­ies from people across the coun­try who voted for the first time in Novem­ber 2008 after having lost, and then regained, their right to vote follow­ing a crim­inal convic­tion.

Despite the large voter turnout in Novem­ber, there remains one signi­fic­ant blanket barrier to the fran­chise. 5.3 million Amer­ican citizens are not allowed to vote because of a crim­inal convic­tion. As many as 4 million of these people live, work, pay taxes, and raise famil­ies in our communit­ies, but because of a convic­tionin their past are still denied the right to vote.

35 states continue to deny the right to vote to people who are no longer in prison. That is only half the story. Repeated surveys by the Bren­nan Center and others have found that many elec­tions offi­cials across the coun­try are unclear on the rules in their states for rein­stat­ing voting rights, mean­ing that even when people with convic­tions are eligible, they are often wrongly turned away.

Bring­ing people into the polit­ical process makes them stake­hold­ers in their govern­ment, while barring them from the polls disrupts reentry into the community. Voting affirms the return­ing community member’s value, encour­ages civic parti­cip­a­tion and helps rebuild ties to fellow citizens.

The stor­ies in My First Vote repres­ent a small sample of the Amer­ic­ans who have returned to their communit­ies, and to the polls, as full citizens. They show the real differ­ence that voting makes in people’s lives.


Testi­mon­ies

Deirdre Wilson
Santa Cruz, Cali­for­nia
“I never voted in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion before this one. The ballot was a concrete reminder, not just rhet­oric, that I have power in a demo­cracy. I held the ballot and felt I was no longer a number or a  second-class citizen. I voted by absentee ballot on the Saturday before the elec­tion. As I ran my pen back and forth over the small square space for the candid­ates I chose to vote for, I felt respons­ible and power­ful; respons­ible as a member of our soci­ety and power­ful to have a say in the process. I closed the envel­ope, removed the edges, and I flattened it very gently with a prayer for social and spir­itual change in this world. As I ran my hands over the envel­ope, I truly felt the energy and weight of the small line of choice I made inside. I felt chills.” 

_________________________
 

Walter Lomax
Baltimore, Mary­land
I got up on Novem­ber 4 with a sense of dread. I felt the same way on the morn­ing I was released from prison after serving close to forty years for a crime I did not commit. I welcomed both morn­ings but had this sense that some­thing would go wrong. As I dressed, all the while making sure that I had all the tolls for the day, camera, pen, pad, and of course read­ing glasses, I knew that this day would be even better than the day I walked out of that court room. Before head­ing to the polling booth, I stopped at my sister Caro­lyn’s home, where I stayed upon my release from prison. I had to pay my respects to the person who stood by me every step of the way. On my way to the polling place, it star­ted to rain. I decided to walk anyways. I wanted to be reminded of what some folk had been through to make this day possible. When I cast my vote for the next Pres­id­ent of the United States of Amer­ica, it seemed that as a nation, we had finally arrived. I did not think this would happen in my life­time. I had regained my free­dom – and my right to vote – I felt I too had arrived.

_________________________
 

Leroy Clark
Ft. Laud­er­dale, Flor­ida
“I dropped out of school, joined the army and went to war. I went back to school when I left the army but got into a lot of messes. I got caught up in drugs, dropped out and became a street person. It all caught up with me and I ended up in prison. I was angry at the world. I had no desire to vote. I felt like if no one was going to help me, why should I do anything for them? As I got older, I real­ized I needed to be a part of the solu­tion, not the prob­lem. I saw a flyer on how to get your rights restored and decided to fight to get my right to vote back. When you can’t do anything, you create a person who does­n’t have a char­ac­ter anymore. But once you vote, you change that. I have a voice again.”

_________________________
 

 

Monica Jahner
Lans­ing, Michigan
As a pris­oner who has fought hard for the rights of other pris­on­ers, polit­ics is a passion of mine, and I looked forward to being part of history on Novem­ber 4th. I wanted to wear some­thing appro­pri­ate – some­thing that would make a state­ment, so I got out my red, white and blue stars and stripes jeans and jacket that said “FREE­DOM AND UNITED STATES.” I had no clue how to vote or what to do. I went with the flow and took my brother along. As I stood in line wait­ing to vote, I closed my eyes and thought of the many times in prison I watched the elec­tions on tele­vi­sion, felt the excite­ment, but could­n’t vote. I pictured all the pris­on­ers I left behind and said a prayer that they would be able to vote soon. The coun­try is crying and scream­ing, and there are tears of utter happi­ness. As Pres­id­ent Obama said, “I have never felt more hope­ful.” I feel blessed to have been part of this history-making event.

_________________________
 

Bruce Reilly
Provid­ence, Rhode Island
I have been actively involved in the Right to Vote campaign in Rhode Island since I was released from prison. I spent years in the prison law library read­ing about the history and the legal justi­fic­a­tion for the right to vote. The more I read, the more I real­ized how wrong the current laws are. Voting is essen­tial. Restrict­ing the right to vote isol­ates and segreg­ates members of the community. In a soci­ety of winners and losers, restrict­ing voting rights creates losers. Voting is a symbol of empower­ment. It’s partic­u­larly import­ant for people who have lost all their powers to have the abil­ity to stand up for them­selves. Imagine you lost your leg and are in a wheel­chair; would you rather wheel your­self around, or would you want to be wheeled by someone? In Rhode Island, we built our own move­ment to get our voting rights back. And the exper­i­ence of going to people’s houses and having that conver­sa­tion encour­aged me to get back into soci­ety and not to hide in a corner.

_________________________
 

Tayna Fogle 
Coving­ton, Kentucky
I could­n’t sleep the night before because I was so anxious for 6:00 A.M. to get here. My heart star­ted beat­ing fast, my knees start­ing knock­ing. I truly thought some­body was going to tap me on my shoulder and tell me my name wasn’t on the list. I accom­pan­ied my 26-year-old son, Michael, to the polling place. It was his first time voting too. Michael had seen the despair in my eyes all the years I could­n’t vote and he decided early on to not parti­cip­ate in the voting process until he could exper­i­ence it with me. 

_________________________
 

Linda Steele 
New York, New York
I’ve been battling substance abuse for thirty years and have been in and out of prison all of my life. But I’ve been out, and clean, for more than four years. My life has completely changed. And on Novem­ber 4th, with millions of Amer­ic­ans, I had a say about what happens in our coun­try. There were tears in my eyes as I waited to vote. I felt like I was finally a product­ive member of soci­ety. I’ve never before felt like I could make a differ­ence in terms of what happens around me. But I walked out of the polling place on Elec­tion Day feel­ing like I mattered, that I made a differ­ence. I real­ized how far I’ve come. Amaz­ing.

_________________________

Marc Ramirez
New York, New York
I looked forward to voting partly because it was progress in my return to citizen­ship, and partly because this elec­tion was so import­ant and excit­ing. I wanted to be a part of it. Voting is import­ant. Many people believe that in the scheme of a national elec­tion, their vote is not import­ant. Recent elec­tions have shown other­wise. My older son is 18 years old and was also able to vote last Novem­ber. We talked about voting, what it meant, the candid­ates, and whether or not he was going to vote. I think know­ing that I was also voting made him feel like he was on the right track.

_________________________

Maurice Pink­ston
Brook­lyn, New York
I haven’t voted in ten years. Every time I applied, I was told I wasn’t eligible – even when I got off parole. I assumed I wasn’t allowed to vote. Finally, I just gave up. It was sad, because my voting rights were import­ant to me. When I star­ted work­ing with the New York City Depart­ment of Parks and Recre­ation, they encour­aged us to get back into our chil­dren’s lives, be product­ive members of soci­ety, and to vote. With their help, I was able to register. I was over­joyed when I got my voter regis­tra­tion card. I was a real citizen! Novem­ber 4th felt like my birth­day.

_________________________

Koren Carbuc­cia
Pawtucket, Rhode Island
If there is one thing that should­n’t be taken from someone – ever – it is voting. Isn’t the point of the crim­inal justice system to return respons­ible, law abid­ing citizens back into their communit­ies? Voting is a way of being a respons­ible, law abid­ing citizen. Voting should be some­thing every­one has to do. I was a volun­teer at the Rhode Island Family Life Center when someone sugges­ted work­ing to change exist­ing laws so people like me, on proba­tion and parole, could vote after incar­cer­a­tion. Work­ing with people who were doing the right thing, believ­ing in some­thing real, made me real­ize even we have the abil­ity to change and be part of some­thing construct­ive. To be honest, I think just to be excited about some­thing posit­ive was an import­ant start for many of us. The biggest impact of the campaign was my son’s excite­ment when he found out “we won,” as he still says. Our real success came in Novem­ber 2008. I, with my son in hand, walked into the polling place and voted. He had been count­ing the days to Novem­ber 4th like it was his birth­day! 

_________________________
 

Kareem Henry
Louis­ville, Kentucky
Since I was 18, I haven’t been on the right path. I have been locked up a few times, and as a result, was never allowed to vote. While I was in prison, I star­ted to real­ize how closed-minded I had been. I star­ted to pay atten­tion to the hous­ing market, the stock market, sports, and polit­ics. Soon, everything opened up. I was read­ing things about the U.S. and the world. I even took up tennis as a hobby. I am proud that I was able to take the neces­sary steps to open my mind—to get out of that shadow that had been dark­en­ing my life. When I got out of prison this time, I was look­ing for some­thing differ­ent. Maybe the chance for a new start. I was nervous when I went to vote on Novem­ber 4th. (I was afraid I would mess it up!) But I left the polling place feel­ing like a weight was lifted off my shoulders.

_________________________
 

 

Terry Sallis
Newton, Iowa
I am 57 years old and this was the first time I have been allowed to exer­cise my right to vote. Going into the voting booth I recall reflect­ing on my past and contex­tu­al­iz­ing the histor­ical implic­a­tions of this partic­u­lar moment in time. I/we have come a long way. When your citizen­ship and right to vote is taken­away it invari­ably reflects on you, and a lack of respect for your­self and the status quo. However, with a new out-look on life I returned to school at the age of 50, ulti­mately complet­ing my Masters degree in Social Work at the age of 55. I wanted to be that posit­ive role model to young disen­fran­chised African-Amer­ican males. Now I was about to parti­cip­ate in an exer­cise that in my mind would fully restore my rights as a citizen. The feel­ing was humbling and empower­ing. The sense of hope­less­ness and ques­tion­ing of your self-worth, which goes hand in hand with the loss of citizen­ship, seemed to vanish once I had voted. I hope every­one under­stands the import­ance of having your citizen­ship and voting rights restored. It instills a sense of hope and belief that if you do the right thing, soci­ety is forgiv­ing and there will be oppor­tun­it­ies to succeed. I will never again take this priv­ilege for gran­ted and I ask all that have been denied the oppor­tun­ity to parti­cip­ate in the voting process to advoc­ate and fight for your right for full restor­a­tion of citizen­ship, most import­antly the right to vote.

 

_________________________
 

Kimberly Haven
Baltimore, Mary­land
Today I voted. Okay, so did hundreds of thou­sands of others. But what made my vote differ­ent is that I am a former felon who just got my right to vote back in 2007. I worked very hard to create and lead a coali­tion in Mary­land that reformed our felony disen­fran­chise­ment policies. Our efforts led to the restor­a­tion of voting rights to well over 50,000 citizens and changed forever the polit­ical land­scape in our State. I was proud to stand behind our Governor when he signed the legis­la­tion into law and I was given the pen with which it was enacted. Today I exer­cised this new right. Not only was it import­ant that I voted, but it was also my job on this historic day to travel the state to make sure that there were no other glitches, no acts of voter intim­id­a­tion or suppres­sion, and that the citizens in the impacted communit­ies I had worked so hard to empower, were going to the polls and cast­ing their votes. Work­ing to get my right to vote back has been the singu­lar most signi­fic­ant piece of legis­la­tion I have worked on. I believe that today I voted not just for the candid­ate of my choice, but for a new day where every voice will be heard and every vote will be coun­ted.

 


About the Right to Vote Project

The Right to Vote Project leads a nation­wide campaign to restore voting rights to people with crim­inal convic­tions. Bren­nan Center staff coun­sels poli­cy­makers and advoc­ates, provides legal and consti­tu­tional analysis, drafts legis­la­tion and regu­la­tions, engages in litig­a­tion chal­len­ging disen­fran­chising laws, surveys the imple­ment­a­tion of exist­ing laws, and promotes the restor­a­tion of voting rights through public outreach and educa­tion.