Above, Long Beach resident Kevin Caeser. Photo by Michael Lozano
The election is just around the corner and Long Beach resident Kevin Caesar isn’t sure if he can vote. The 55-year-old just got off probation and says that while he plans to register he’s not sure whether his record will prevent him from casting a ballot.
“I’m wondering, am I able to vote now? Even though I’m a felon?” he asked.
Recent legislation aims to clear the air on whether people with felonies can vote after years of confusing laws have left many Californians scratching their heads.
Assembly Bill 2466, signed by Governor Brown on Sept. 28, clarifies that those with low-level felonies in county jail or on probation can vote.
While the California constitution excludes the “imprisoned” from voting, AB 2466 clearly defines imprisoned as serving time in state prisons — and not county jails. It also recognizes that those sent from state to county jails under the Criminal Justice Realignment Act of 2011 can — in fact — vote.
Since the Realignment Act’s passing, confusion had grown over whether prisoners in jail under the act were allowed to vote. But advocates long knew those rights were in place with some going as far as heading into jails to register inmates in past years. In light of swirling questions, all AB 2466 did was make voting rights clear.
Still, California continues to prohibit those in state prisons or on parole from voting. Illinois and Oregon deny suffrage only for those in prison, The Sentencing Project reports, while Vermont and Maine have no voting restrictions on individuals with criminal records.
About one in every 40 American adults cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement. But that rate soars to 1 in 13 for African Americans, according to The Sentencing Project.
“It is worth noting that in a lot of states, these laws were actually put into place specifically to disenfranchise people of color,” said Raúl Macias, an attorney at American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in San Diego, who tied these trends to the Jim Crow era. “There’s a legacy of that,” said Macias.
For Macias and others, AB 2466 is a welcome relief clearing up a lot of the confusion that for many incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people also proved to be a stiff barrier to voting.
“It’s what we call ‘defacto’ disenfranchisement – that people are not voting because of confusion around the law,” Macias said. “[There are many] people who mistakenly think they are ineligible.”
To correct the misconceptions, Amber-Rose Howard, a Long Beach community organizer at All of Us or None, a grassroots civil and human rights organization, goes the extra mile by distributing filled-out registration cards to prisoners in county jails alongside other Long Beach and Los Angeles activists. They register between 20 to 60 voters per visit at the Men’s County Jail in Los Angeles or the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, among other sites.
“People inside and people in the community were being misinformed. People didn’t realize that they still had the right to vote,” Howard said, adding that many who register are surprised and excited.
“They actually want to register,” Howard added. “They are excited about getting some of the things on the ballot passed.” Of particular interest is Proposition 57, said Howard, which is a measure that would increase chances of parole for those with nonviolent felonies.
Howard hoped to have as many people in jails possible registered on time. She lamented that the request process to register jail inmates has, at times, been bureaucratic, but her team recently reached an agreement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to streamline the process.
All of Us or None activists have registered more than 1,400 voters inside jails since 2012, but still, Howard worries.
“We haven’t even scratched the surface,” she said, adding that there are 16,000 people eligible to register in Los Angeles County Jails.
Now that there are clarifying laws and renewed momentum among advocates to extend voting in California, it may lead to a higher voter turnout this election year. Voting has also shown to be associated with reduced recidivism, as mentioned in a 2013 ACLU and Sentencing Project report.
“They are going back and undoing some of the damage. They are giving us a chance to heal our communities,” Howard said.
But some do not entirely agree with granting those with low-level offenses voting rights. Some law enforcement leaders argue that it’s been traditional to lose one’s right to vote while behind bars for committing a “serious crime” and then regain that right after serving time.
“We believe that there have to be consequences to your action, and the consequences of being a convicted felon are that you can’t vote,” said Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood, President of the California State Sheriffs’ Association, to The Los Angeles Times after AB 2466 was passed.
“So many of us are locked out of the political process because of a criminal background,” Howard said, arguing that those stuck in the criminal justice system should have a say on issues that impact them; to make sure “we don’t have another 20 years of the War on Drugs.”
This election year alone there are 17 ballot measures that could have a direct impact on people behind bars, including two that seek to repeal the death penalty and legalize marijuana.
That last one hits close to home for Kevin Caesar, who spent decades in and out of prison for using and selling crack cocaine. In 2011 he was sentenced to 10 years in state prison after failing a drug test that found marijuana in his system.
“I just smoked a joint,” he said, which had baffled his overseeing officers in state prison. “The system put me into jail for 10 years,” he told them.
Caesar was released early last year for good conduct. Now a free man and five-years-sober, Caesar is just one of many thousands who thought that while on the outside they couldn’t vote. But after being given the right information, his smile becomes wide. His large, round, dark-brown eyes twinkle with excitement as he realizes had been able to vote since his release last year.
Days after applying, his proof of voter registration arrives by mail. “I feel free because I’ve been in the [wrong] lifestyle for so long,” he said. “It’s kept me from everything. But today I live. I’m able to vote.”