California May Restore Voting Rights to Over 55,000 People With Felony Records

October 19, 2020

A ballot measure in California, Proposition 17, would restore voting rights to all residents after they leave prison on parole. Under current law, people with felony convictions lose the right to vote until they finish parole. If approved by voters in November, Prop 17 would affect over 55,000 Californians.

Californian voting rights are also a question of racial justice. According to the Yes on 17 campaign, three out of four men released from California prisons are Black, Latino or Asian American.

“We can’t talk about a fair and equitable democracy if we don’t include a population that is in our community paying taxes just like the rest of us,” Shay Franco-Clausen of the Yes on 17 campaign told Filter. “California is one of the last three states that deny people on parole their voting rights—even Florida beat us to the punch!”

Franco-Clausen is optimistic about Prop 17’s prospects of passing, noting that it has received overwhelming support from local, state and even federal elected officials on both sides of the political aisle, as well as advocacy groups like the ACLU and Black Lives Matter.

“There’s no fees that have to be paid back; it just restores your voting rights.”

She also expects that the reform, if approved, will take effect as intended. In some states that have attempted felony voter reform, lawmakers have watered down or effectively blocked change by requiring that people pay back onerous criminal-legal system debts as a precondition. “We wrote this to be straightforward without any exclusions,” she said. “There’s no fees that have to be paid back; it just restores your voting rights.”

The California parole population is currently about 92 percent male, 43 percent Hispanic/Latinx, and 25 percent Black. The largest age groups are the 25-29 and 30-34 categories, according to state prison data shared with Filter by Franco-Clausen. The numbers constantly change, she stressed, but one thing is certain: Prop 17 could make a massive difference to tens of thousands of people.

California has had a long journey up to this point. The first major reform to felony voting rights in recent history was in 1976, when the state amended its constitution to repeal a lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions. From that point on, only people “imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony” would remain barred. But as the ACLU recounts, this language could be interpreted in different ways, and prompted legal challenges.

A bill passed in 2011, the Criminal Justice Realignment Act, inadvertently led to further voting reforms. In reaction to prison overcrowding, the act transferred people with low-level felony convictions out of state and federal prisons.

These people were then either confined in a county jail, or released on mandatory supervision or post-release community supervision. In 2014 the ACLU of California sued the state, arguing that under the state’s constitution, people in all three categories should not be denied the right to vote. The lawsuit succeeded—but even then, counties didn’t uphold the law consistently, and continued to deny many people in county jails the right to vote.

In September 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law Assembly Bill 2466, to ensure that all people affected by the realignment act would be able to vote. At the time it took effect, AB 2466 affected about 50,000 people in California, many of whom could now vote from jail.

Proposition 17, then, would further expand the right to vote to include all people on felony parole. The only people still not able to vote would be those currently in prison.

The National Movement for Felony Voting Rights

The Sentencing Project estimates that as of 2016, over 6.1 million Americans were disenfranchised because of felony voter restrictions. Half of these were people who had completed their prison sentences and were no longer on probation or parole, but who resided in the 11 states that continue to restrict voting rights regardless.

States that have taken recent action to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people include New Jersey, Colorado, Kentucky and, perhaps most notably, Florida.

Florida is an egregious example of what happens when an initiative with popular support is undermined by lawmakers.

The mechanisms used and their scope vary. In New Jersey, the legislature passed a law, signed by the governor in December 2019, that restored voting rights for people on probation or parole, affecting about 83,000.

In Kentucky around the same time, newly elected Governor Andy Beshear (D) used an executive order to restore voting rights to about 140,000 people with nonviolent felony convictions. However, his order does not apply to people on probation or parole, and excludes certain felony convictions. It is also not binding in statute: Unless the legislature codifies it into law, a future governor could reverse the action.

Florida, meanwhile, is an egregious example of what happens when an initiative with popular support is undermined by lawmakers. In November 2018, Amendment 4 passed with 64 percent voter approval. It promised to restore voting rights to all people with past felony convictions, provided they completed their prison, parole, or probation sentence.

It excluded people with convictions for murder or sexual offenses. Nonetheless, as the Guardian noted, it affected up to 1.4 million people—including over 21 percent of all eligible Black voters—making it arguably the most dramatic US voter reform since the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That promise has been cruelly dashed by Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Ron DeSantis (ironically, Amendment 4 received more votes than DeSantis in the same night). They exploited the measure’s loose requirement that voting rights be restored “upon completion of all terms of sentence”—without precisely defining what that meant.

In response to pleas from election officials to clarify the amendment, Republicans passed a law to massively restrict its impact. They did so by requiring that people pay all fines, fees, court costs and restitution owed before they could vote again. For most impacted people, that’s impossible.

Outrageously, people don’t even have a reliable way to discover how much they are supposed to owe, or to whom.

Florida courts imposed over $1 billion in felony fines between 2013-2018, but only collected an average of 19 percent of those fines each year. People whose mandatory fines were converted to civil liens—due to their inability to pay them—are still excluded from voting.

Outrageously, people don’t even have a reliable way to discover how much they are supposed to owe, or to whom. There is no centralized, accurate database for people to check their debts: Information accessed on the internet or over the phone will yield different answers. The Guardian reported that one county official testified that old crime records were kept in shoeboxes.

Florida Republicans’ attack on Amendment 4 has been challenged in court; blocked by a federal judge; reinstated by a higher federal court; challenged again in the US Supreme Court; and reinstated again when the Supreme Court refused to consider the case. In 2020 and beyond, the fight for felony voting rights in Florida will continue.

The Next Steps in California

Back in California, formerly incarcerated people like Ingrid Archie are now dedicated fighting for people with criminal convictions. She spent much of her youth and adult life, until age 30, in and out of prison and jail. Through her work with A New Way of Life Foundation, she helps people understand their legal rights after their release—including around voting.

“The first time I went to prison, I got out on parole,” she told Filter. “A lot of times I would go to the grocery store and see voter registration tables outside. I couldn’t register because of my parole. That lasted for 12 months.”

This would put California on par with just two other states—Maine and Vermont—that allow people to vote from prison.

While Archie believes Prop 17 will succeed in restoring voting rights to people on parole, she also sees it as just a step toward the final goal: restoring rights to all citizens, regardless of their criminal-legal status. This would put California on par with just two other states—Maine and Vermont—that allow people to vote from prison.

Archie has since regained her own right to vote. “It feels great that I get to have a say in who comes in my neighborhood,” she said. “Any proposition, measure or election that happens—I can be a part of the process. I think so many impacted people fear that their vote or opinion doesn’t count—and many people with felony convictions still don’t know they even can vote.”

“These are the kind of people we need to organize and bring to the polls, so we can see progressive change in California.”


Photo by Kristin Ausk via Flickr/Creative Commons 2.0.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander's journalism covers the policy, science and culture of drugs. His journey began as an activist with Students for Sensible Drug Policy at New York University, where he served as president, helping organize marijuana legalization and "Ban the Box" campaigns. He was also an organizer for the 2017 New York City Cannabis Parade. His drug journalism career began in 2016, and his work has been published in High Times, Leafly, Merry Jane, AlterNet, Psymposia and Psychedelic Times. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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