California must extend voting rights to parolees

STATE ISSUES: As a self-proclaimed leader in social issues, California should further enfranchise formerly-incarcerated citizens

Illustration of people standing in front of a ballot box
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

In the weeks after the 2018 midterm elections, phrases such as “voter suppression” and “disenfranchisement” made headlines as election outcomes were decided by the merest of margins. Communities of color were and continue to be disproportionately affected by tactics such as gerrymandering, voter caging and antiquated voter ID laws. Locking out parolees doesn’t help the situation.

One in every 13 Black citizens has lost their right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. In stark contrast, one in every 56 non-Black individuals cannot vote for the same reasons. That’s a staggering disparity that the government has seemed slow to address thus far.

In a positive turn of events, California lawmakers have proposed Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6, which would extend voting rights to people on parole. If passed by the state legislature, it would appear on the November 2020 ballot. About 50,000 Californians would be enfranchised, which could significantly affect local- and state-level politics. Although egregiously overdue, it’s heartening to see that legislators recognize the value in suffrage for people who are contributing to society. 

Whether a person is on parole or not depends on where they served their sentence. Federal prisons put incarcerated people on probation, while state prisons can put them on parole. California law stipulates that people on probation can register to vote, while people on parole cannot. For a state that claims to be a leader in social issues, it’s shameful that California has taken so long to extend voting rights to parolees. 

Parole as a concept isn’t meant to be punitive. It’s not an extension of a sentence, but rather an opportunity for formerly incarcerated individuals to reintegrate into society. A person on parole must find a job, maintain a residence and participate in democracy at large. Barring parolees from voting unfairly hinders their civic engagement — a unique punishment in itself.

Measures related to criminal justice surface on the ballot every election, but the people impacted aren’t allowed to have a say. And preventing parolees from voting means that they can’t influence who their elected officials are, whether it be city council members or district attorneys. 

At a local level, formerly incarcerated people on parole from San Quentin State Prison settle in the Bay Area and pay local and federal taxes — yet still do not have a voice in who represents them. A thriving community of formerly incarcerated students can even be found here at UC Berkeley, where they make a concerted effort to attend university, earn a degree and positively impact society. 

Although pushing the amendment through won’t qualify parolees for voting in the November 2020 elections, it’s one step closer to enabling those on parole to better engage with what directly impacts them. As a state, California ought to recognize that parolees are everyday people and give them their much-deserved right to vote.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2019 opinion editor, Revati Thatte.