The Fight to Vote

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The Black Codes

Southern states were livid at the passage of those three “Reconstruction Amendments.” So they passed “Black codes” to make it harder for Black citizens and other People of Color to register and vote. Literacy tests, poll taxes, and laws prohibiting people with a criminal conviction from voting were specifically designed to suppress Black political power.

20th Century Suppression

Many religious and paramilitary groups enforced voter suppression until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was passed, and the U.S. put teeth into prohibiting racial discrimination in voting. The VRA resulted in the mass enfranchisement (restoring the right to vote) of racial minorities, most notably in the South. It is considered the most effective piece of civil rights legislation ever enacted in the country.

21st Century Disenfranchisement

Since 2008, many states across the country have passed measures making it harder for Americans to vote—especially people of color, the elderly, the poor, students, and people with disabilities. These measures include voter ID laws, cuts to early voting, purges of voter rolls, and ongoing “felony disenfranchisement,” the stripping away of a person’s right to vote because of a criminal conviction.

Breaking Barriers

In recent years, a movement has been growing to reverse felony disenfranchisement laws and increase access to voting for people impacted by the criminal legal system. California has passed several reforms over the last two decades to expand voting eligibility for formerly incarcerated people and people in jail. In November 2020, California voters passed Proposition 17 by an overwhelming margin, restoring voting rights to nearly 50,000 people on parole. 

Even with these victories, more must be done to break barriers to voting for system-impacted people. During the 2023-24 California legislative cycle, ACA 4 was introduced with the goal of restoring voting rights to people in prison, finally ending a felony disenfranchisement law started in the mid-1800s. AB 544 was also introduced, which would allow counties to establish in-person voting locations for Californians incarcerated in county jails.

The Free the Vote coalition behind Prop 17 and ACA 4 is dedicated to ensuring that having a criminal record or being incarcerated is not a barrier to voting and that all Californians can have their voices heard in our democracy. You can support these efforts by talking to your friends and family about why this matters. Here are some tips:

  1. You are a trusted messenger for your community. Talk about your passion for democracy and criminal legal reform and help others learn about the issues.
  2. Share stories about people who have been blocked from voting because of their record and give examples of the unfair barriers that system-impacted voters face. 
  3. Remind people that our democracy works best when it’s fair and inclusive. Depriving our system-impacted neighbors of the right to have a voice in the policies that affect their everyday lives is out of step with our values.
  4. Dispel myths and misinformation. Studies show that civic engagement is linked to reduced recidivism – when people have the right to vote, they are less likely to return to jail. Let people know that increasing voting access makes us safer. You can also fight misinformation about voter eligibility by sharing Let Me Vote resources in your community. 
  5. Always use people-centered language. Offensive terms like “felon” or “offender” are dehumanizing and are used to justify a racist punishment system. Instead, use terms like “incarcerated person” or “returning citizen.” Words have power.