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CJCJ Cameo House participants joyfully join together with fellow San Franciscans at Mayor London Breed’s Inauguration.

Last week, counties across California submitted their direct primary election results to the Secretary of State after a month of diligent ballot counting. Among San Francisco’s voters on June 5th were participants in CJCJ’s Cameo House program who eagerly turned out to vote on Election Day. Cameo House, a residential program serving justice-involved, homeless women and their children, seeks to support participants in a holistic and individualized way. As part of this programming, civic engagement is emphasized as an opportunity for empowerment. 

Barriers for justice-involved individuals’ access to political power extend beyond restrictions on their legal right to vote. Amid state-by-state variation and convoluted voter registration processes, many people face confusion and misinformation even when their voting rights have been reinstated. In 2013, California legislators passed Assembly Bill 149 (Weber) to limit confusion about voter eligibility by requiring county probation departments to provide information on voting rights both online and in their offices. Three years later, Assembly Bill 2466 (Weber) further clarified that only individuals in prison or on parole, not those serving time in jail, are ineligible to vote. These policies are rooted in the recognition that limited or inaccurate information limits the political power of justice-involved voters.

In an effort to combat these barriers, Cameo House organized an informative voter education workshop kindly facilitated by the San Francisco Department of Elections to prepare participants for last month’s election. This workshop provided a space for the women of Cameo House to learn about their voting eligibility, which is open to Californians who are not currently incarcerated in state or federal prison nor currently on parole. Additionally, the women took this opportunity to inquire about the political issues that mattered most to them. Impartial information was offered about the candidates running for the California Governor, San Francisco Mayor, and the local District 8 Supervisor where Cameo House is located. Conversations about local measures that impact participants, their families, and communities provided clarification and confidence to participate in this year’s election.

CJCJ Cameo House participant proudly poses with her I Voted!” sticker on Election Day.

As November’s consequential United States congressional midterm, state, and local elections near, momentum builds among community advocates and voting rights activists across the nation. With over six million people disenfranchised in the U.S. due to a felony conviction as of 2016, questions about the political and ethical legitimacy of states’ felony disenfranchisement laws have gained traction in recent years. The impact of disenfranchisement during and after incarceration reaches beyond these six million individuals — their families’ and communities’ needs are left without voting power to address them. 

These laws are based on the medieval concept of civil death” which dictates that a person who commits a crime forfeits their political personhood in the tradeoff between civil liberties and public order. When felony disenfranchisement policies took hold in the U.S. in the early 1800s, they were rooted in sentiments of nativism and racial supremacy. Today, policies that cut the political power of justice-involved and incarcerated individuals continue to disparately impact people and communities of color. In fact, one in every thirteen African American adults, totaling 2.2 million citizens, is banned from voting in the United States. This likelihood increases by approximately 1.6 times in states like Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.

While some states remain tied to antiquated and unjust disenfranchisement practices, others are taking leaps toward representative voting policies. In April, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals on parole by way of executive order, allowing over 35,000 people the renewed opportunity to cast their vote. In Florida, which stands among the states with the most stringent bans on voting for those with felony convictions, the Voting Restoration Amendment is poised to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated individuals who are not on parole or probation. State legislators in New Jersey go a step further by considering a bill this year that would allow people to vote while in prison. Similarly, Californians pushed for the Voting Restoration and Democracy Act of 2018 with the same intention and, while the initiative will not be on the November ballot, justice advocates have geared its momentum toward a legislative strategy that ultimately aims to restore all incarcerated individuals’ right to vote in the state.

Opportunities for civic engagement, including the right to vote, for individuals who have had any level of involvement in the justice system can have broad reaching impacts. As it stands, an individual’s incarceration and disenfranchisement is connected to distrust in government among their loved ones and reduced participation in voting within their entire neighborhoods. Civic participation among justice-involved people is associated with positive outcomes: changing one’s personal and public identity, increasing connections between the individual and the community, and directly improving the community by including passionate and informed perspectives in the decision-making process.

Related Links:

Felony Disenfranchisement on Election Day