The ability to vote is one of great importance and should be enjoyed by every citizen. Until you lose your right to vote you will not understand this. I can attest to this since I lost my ability to vote for many years because of a crime I committed.
Some states take away your right to vote forever if you are convicted of a felony. In New York State, according to the New York State Division of Parole, your right to vote is restored once you have completed either parole or your maximum sentence. If you are on probation, your right to vote is never taken away. The most alarming aspect is that many individuals in this situation are eligible to vote, but don't know it. When I was released from prison after serving 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence, under the Rockefeller drug laws, I had no clue about my eligibility to cast a vote. When I went to register to vote I was shocked when they informed me that I had to wait until I was released from parole in order to do so. I felt the pain of felony disenfranchisement since it seemed I was being further punished for my crime. Because of this, I want to inform all ex-offenders of their voting rights, and how important it is for them to vote.
This is especially true in the upcoming election. The role of formerly incarcerated individuals will play an important role in this election. It is a well-known fact that the denial of the ability of ex-felons to vote in important battleground states like Florida can have tremendous results on the outcome of the election.
Florida is one of only four states along with Virginia, Iowa and South Dakota with a lifetime ban on voting for any person convicted of a felony. There are about 1.5 million Florida residents that cannot vote. This means that one in ten Floridians of voting age are disenfranchised. This is an astounding amount of individuals that could sway the outcome of the upcoming presidential election. We must speak out against laws like this and find ways overturn these Jim Crow type of laws that still exist.
I remember very clearly when I was released from prison and tried to vote and I was turned away. I felt like I was second class citizen because I was powerless to help fix my south Bronx neighborhood that was deteriorating around me. I had to wait five years until I was off of parole in order to vote. When I was allowed to vote I felt complete and was fully welcomed back by society as a citizen.
Exercising the right to vote should be an important part of an ex-prisoner's rehabilitation. It's an act that makes one feel whole again following years of losing those rights as part of a punishment for crimes committed. If through voting, individuals can become involved in the political process, they have a much better chance of fully integrating back into society.
Anthony Papa is the Manager of Media and Artist Relations of the Drug Policy Alliance and the author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency