Convicted low-level felons could get voting rights in California

KTVU
September 9, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calfi. (KTVU) - Felons serving time in county jail could be allowed to vote in California elections from behind bars. The bill AB2466 now sits on Governor Jerry Brown’s desk.

The right to vote for people with felony convictions depends on where they live in the United States.

Currently in California, a felon’s voting right is restored only after he or she completes parole.

Dorsey Nunn cast his first ballot at age 35.

"I dressed up for it, just like the way people used to dress up when they had to catch airplanes,” said Nunn.

Nunn spent 12 years in San Quentin State Prison for a robbery and murder of a store clerk when he was 19.

“I never got the chance to tell that man’s family I was sorry,” said Nunn, now in his 60s.

After he completed his parole at age 31, Nunn’s voting right was restored. He now is the executive director of  Legal Services for Prisoners With Children and aids formerly incarcerated people to register to vote and educate themselves on their rights.

"Most people who are actively engaged in the democratic process not only make better citizens, but they're not necessarily going back and forth to prison,” said Nunn.

Across America, voting rights for convicted felons are left up to individual states to decide.

2 states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while behind bars. 14 states restore voting rights automatically when a person is released from prison.

4 states, including California, restore voting rights after completion of parole. 21 states restore voting rights after a person completes probation. 6 states deny the right to vote for some felons. 3 states permanently restrict voting by those with felony convictions.

Many with felony convictions are confused on their rights after incarceration. Tiffany, who asked we not reveal her identity, was served time in Arizona. She now resides in San Francisco and registered to vote, but has yet to cast a ballot.

"I was more scared about showing up, and then them telling me I couldn't vote,” said Tiffany.

Legal Services for Prisoners With Children provided a copy of a North Carolina indictment. It read a man on parole voted in a recent election, committing a parole violation. It states: “The defendant did not restore his right of citizenship prior to voting.”

"It begs the question, if I don't have that right in these other states, am I a citizen of this country or am I just a citizen of this state?" said Nunn.

"I actually think that my right to vote has little to do with punishment, and more to do with racism."

The ACLU of Northern California calls felon disenfranchisement  “a discriminatory voting restriction in California that is a carry over from the Jim Crow era, when states made it harder for Black citizens and other minorities to register and vote.”

The bill AB2466 (Weber-D, San Diego) would allow low-level felons in county jails the right to vote. It would not apply to felons serving time in state and federal prisons. The bill narrowly passed through the state legislature and is strongly opposed by the California State Sheriffs’ Association. In a phone interview, Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said the association believes there needs to be appropriate consequences and people held accountable for their criminal acts.

The ability to vote while behind bars is a right that Tiffany believes many felons would take exercise and spend the time educating themselves on ballot measures.

"People have a lot of time on their hands, they can make a difference.”

Nunn doesn’t think more people voting while in custody would affect a presidential election, but may make a difference in local politics.

"We can probably dictate who gets elected for stuff like, district attorney. We can determine who sits on our school board. We can determine who sits on our council and how our tax dollars are distributed,” said Nunn.

If Governor Brown signs AB2466, ballots allowed behind county bars would only be a small victory for Nunn.

"Right now, we're only talking about my right to vote,” said Nunn, adding he’d like to see more rights restored.

“You can't even possibly conceive that I could want to hold public office. I think most people, who will probably see this, have no idea how important democracy is, until they actually lose it."