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This week we’ll explore felon disenfranchisement and the political battle to restore the voting rights of over 6 million people not eligible to vote because of laws that restrict people convicted of felonies from voting. We’ll meet criminal justice activists in California pushing to restore the rights of 50,000 individuals on parole, through the advocacy of a ballot measure in November’s election. We will also turn our attention to the Native vote. In 2019 and early 2020, Native Americans testified at congressional field hearings about the ways in which their votes were being suppressed.
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Anita Johnson This week on Making contact we’ll explore felony disenfranchisement and the political battle to restore the voting rights of six million people, not able to vote because of laws that restrict people convicted of felonies from voting. We’ll meet criminal justice activists in California pushing to restore the rights of 50,000 individuals on parole through the advocacy of a ballot measure in November’s election. We will also turn our attention to the native vote. In 2019 and early 2020, native Americans testified at congressional field hearings about the ways in which their votes were being suppressed.
Richard Mireles I think democracy is stronger when it’s fair and inclusive, and when you continue to strip things from us, we don’t feel included. So at some point, people got to see that the system’s set for us to fail, and it needs to change for us to not fail, but to reintegrate, in a healthy way. And part of that is us voting.
Anita Johnson That’s Richard Mireles. After being released from prison in 2019, he was surprised to learn that he couldn’t vote in California.
Richard Mireles My first month of being out. I needed assistance. So I went to the county for general assistance and they provided a, you know, maybe two hundred and fifty to 300 dollars a month in assistance. And they gave me a packet that I needed to fill out. It was mandatory to fill out with all the details. In that packet is, the whole voter registration packet. And so I spent two hours. I was pretty excited because I have never voted my whole life. And so I filled out the whole packet. And then I went and asked the director of the transitional house, hey, you know, how can I get this turned in? I’m pretty excited about voting. And he said, no, you can’t vote. I said, why not? And he said, because you’re on parole.
Anita Johnson At the age of 20 a court sentenced Richard to life on his first felony case. In the two decades of his incarceration. Richard became a model prisoner. He got sober and earned his college degree. Richard, now 42, works with a nonprofit restorative justice program that helps formerly incarcerated individuals adjust to the challenges of life after prison.
Richard Mireles I’m on a team on the Crop Organization of five formerly incarcerated directors. And, we’re all formerly incarcerated lifers. We all served a total of one hundred and twelve years. Two guys on our teams have master’s degrees. One has a double masters. We all care about education. We care about giving back. We’re gonna be in the business of reentry and workforce development. And I know hundreds of guys are coming out here with their education, their coming out here to work. They’re coming out here to make a difference in society, to use their time and their talents to make a difference in this world. They’re not coming out like the movies portray to sell dope and gang bang. And you know, that that era is gone. I’m sure there’s those revolving door kind of guy. But all I know was the guys coming out here who want to make a difference.
Anita Johnson Richard is part of a national movement that’s advocating for the political rights of formerly incarcerated people by encouraging them to vote if they are eligible and working to restore their rights if they are not.
Richard Mireles I say, well, if I can’t vote, I want to sign up to be one of the people that, you know stands outside Wal-Mart or wherever that encourages others to vote. And so, you know, I want to be a part of a community, I want to be a part of solution.
Anita Johnson In California, it’s estimated that almost 50,000 individuals currently on parole can’t vote because of a felony conviction. Ballot measure Proposition 17, in November would automatically restore voting rights after a prison sentence has been completed.
Richard Mireles You know, it has a ripple effect. A lot of people think of it, you know, 50,000 people, a hundred thousand people. That may not matter. But when you look at the implications and the ramifications of what can happen when people actually go to the polls and vote.
Anita Johnson Ken Oliver, the Policy Manager for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children based in San Francisco, California:
Ken Oliver It could change the whole trajectory of a state, of a county, of the funds that come into a county, of the resources that come into the county, of a sheriff that’s elected, the district attorney, it’s very important.
Anita Johnson Proponents of Prop 17, like Ken Oliver, believe the move to restore voting rights to people on parole will repair long standing inequities and provide parolees with an opportunity to contribute to their community.
Ken Oliver California, and America in general, the West in general, has a history of us vs. them and making people who’ve been sent to prison or committed a crime part of what I call a throwaway population. They’ve made people expendable because what happens is, is that whether a person has done a minimal crime, like stealing a car or done something that people consider to be, you know, more serious and violent, an assault or even a murder in some cases, what follows once people serve their time and give back to the state, what the state says that they’ve taken, there’s a civil death and that civil death means that when people get out, they don’t have a right to housing, they don’t have a right to employment because of their felony record.
Ken Oliver They don’t have a right to vote. They don’t have a right to participate in society. At Legal Services for Prisoners with Children we champion policy and legal measures and organizing measures to change the narrative for people that have been to prison and teach people to speak up for their own voices and to give positive demonstrations that contribute to the community. We do community give backs. We serve the community. We train people for jobs. We put people in positions to get housing and really talk to people on a regular basis about redemption, about the human quality of human capital and human beings and the ideology of transformation.
Anita Johnson The current California voting rights law is more restrictive than that of 19 other states, plus the District of Columbia. There are 17 states that automatically restore voting rights after a person’s release from prison. There are two states plus D.C. that have no felony disenfranchisement at all. According to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 2.5 percent of Americans, or a little under six million voters are disenfranchised due to past felony convictions. African-Americans and Latinos are among the groups most impacted by these laws.
Brittany Stonesifer Unfortunately, California has a long history of felony disenfranchisement and restrictions on voting for people with convictions was actually included in the state’s first constitution in the 1800’s.
Anita Johnson Brittany Stonecipher is a voting rights attorney with the ACLU of California.
Brittany Stonesifer It was part of a wave of Jim Crow segregation that passed after the Civil War. And it continues to be in the state constitution. And unfortunately, it continues to have the disproportionate impact of locking people of color out of the voting booth. Because of discriminate over policing of communities of color and racial inequalities in the criminal legal system.
Anita Johnson According to the Public Policy Institute of California at the end of 2016, African-Americans made up 26 percent of parolees, but only six percent of California’s adult population. Whites also make up 26 percent of the parolee population, but comprise a much larger share, at 41 percent of the total adult population. Latinos account for 40 percent of parolees and 35 percent of California’s adult population. On average, black American adults are more than four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population.
James Wheelock Not being able to vote: it takes you out of that process so you don’t even feel like you’re part of your community. You don’t feel like you’re a whole citizen because you have no say so in anything that’s going on.
Anita Johnson James Willock, now 47, was released in 2020 after serving 28 years. As a condition of his parole, he is not eligible to vote till 2027.
James Willock You know, first of all, it’s hard to find a job based on some of the laws and policies that are in place as far as who can hire felons, why they don’t have to hire felons or whatever. And then you want to once you do get a job, though, you pay your taxes, you’re an upstanding citizen, and yet you have no say so in anything that’s going on. And that’s even like on the local level as far as, school zones or, you know, lunch programs, or community centers, where’s this money, tax money being used for? I’m in a neighborhood that I live around, I know what’s needed in this neighborhood. First of all, I’ve been a criminal, so I know the criminal element, what’s going on in here. So who better to have a say so than someone who’s lived that life and now is living another life.
Anita Johnson James isn’t alone in his frustration with being denied his civic rights. Taric Palmer says being released from prison without the right to vote makes him feel powerless.
Taric Palmer I feel like my purpose in life is to contribute to the awakening consciousness of our people. And one of those ways is to be able to vote. Is to be able to elect people who would change how prison functions, how parole functions, how police function, and not being able to express my voice in this election when it’s Black Lives Matters, when it’s the George Floyd death to Oscar Grant death, where it is more important to be a black man in this society and I am unable to participate: makes me feel less than a man. But I know that I’m more than that. So I keep pushin’ because everyone should have the right to vote.
Anita Johnson For many returning citizens, felony disenfranchisement is viewed as a form of extended punishment, a way to diminish their sense of belonging. Richard Mireles:
Richard Mireles You know, I read this book called The New Jim Crow. And there’s just new ways of marginalizing black and brown people. ‘Cause if you, if you ask ’em, all they can say is, well, you need to continue to be punished. And your punishment isn’t over when you get out of prison. And I think it’s just another way for us to to set things up for us to fail.
Anita Johnson Instead of further punishment upon release, Voting rights advocates like Brittany Stonesifer suggest that increased civic participation reduces the chances of someone returning to prison.
Brittany Stonesifer The states that do allow people to vote upon their release from prison have lower rates of recidivism. There have been a number of studies that have looked at the connection between how restrictive a state’s laws are around voting rights so people have convictions and how frequently people return to prison and how successful they are at re-entry. And it makes sense because when people feel connected to their communities and they feel like their voices are valued, they are more successful at reentering their community and making those connections.
Anita Johnson Prop 17, largely supported by prison reform advocates, offers a fresh new way to engage returning citizens and address the systemic racism and socio-economic bias in our criminal justice system.
Brittany Stonesifer I think that people are becoming more aware of this issue and how it continues to create further suppression that continues to lock people of color out of the ballot box in California and nationwide. Again, I think the Black Lives Matter protests have really made our focus stronger on that. And in the course of the legislative battle to pass ACA6 through the legislature and get it on the ballot, just over the last year and a half, three states have reformed their felony disenfranchisement rules and eliminated forms of restrictions that they had previously. So there is momentum going across the nation to get rid of this archaic form of Jim Crow voter suppression.
Anita Johnson As states across the nation grapple with the issue of voting rights for people still incarcerated and on parole, Californians will cast their votes for Proposition 17 this election. If it succeeds. 50,000 people on parole will be eligible to vote. But if it fails, voting rights advocates have pledged to continue the legal fight to eliminate felony disenfranchisement.
Anita Johnson For Making Contact. I’m Anita Johnson in Oakland, California.
Anita Johnson You’re listening to Unblock the Vote, 2020, an examination of voter suppression and its impact on historically marginalized populations. This episode is part of our ongoing series on voting rights in the run-up to the 2020 election. To stay up to date on past and present shows, check out our web site, radioproject.org. And now back to Unblock the Vote 2020.
President Lyndon B. Johnson This act flows from a clear and simple wrong. Its only purpose is to right that wrong. Millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of their color. This law will ensure them the right to vote.
Anita Johnson Fifty five years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The civil rights era legislation was designed to protect access to the polls. But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the law. If a jurisdiction with a history of voter discrimination wanted to make changes to voting or elections, they had to prove that the changes would not have a discriminatory effect on any group. Congress member Marcia Fudge:
Rep. Marcia Fudge In 2013, the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County gave jurisdictions with a provable legacy of discrimination a green light to discriminate at will. What was old is new again, polling place closures and movements, cutbacks and restrictions on early voting, discriminatory voter I.D. laws, removing otherwise eligible voters from the rolls, modern day poll taxes, and a failure to provide required language assistance and materials, among other barriers, all combine to continually disenfranchize millions of otherwise eligible voters.
Anita Johnson Congress member Fudge chairs the House Subcommittee on Elections, which held field hearings on voting rights and election administration across the country. Three of those hearings covered Native American voting rights and barriers to the ballot. Making Contact producer Monica Lopez has more.
Monica Lopez Organizers are focusing on key states where Native Americans could tip the scales toward issues and candidates they favor. These states are Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. But while many are working to get out the vote in Indian country, others have been doing what they can to suppress those votes. And what are some of the biggest barriers to the polls for Native Americans this November?
Judith LeBlanc I think the biggest challenge that we face in the 2020 elections is Covid.
Monica Lopez Judith LeBlanc is a citizen of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma who resides in New York City. She’s the director of the Native Organizers Alliance, a grassroots training and organizing network that works with tribes, tribal entities and Native American community groups.
Judith LeBlanc We just found out today that in one of our sites on one reservation, one of our canvassers has caught Covid. We are trying to ensure that all of the voter engagement, the voter registration, getting people to the polls is done with PPE, with every protection possible. So I think that’s the biggest obstacle. The second, you know, is distance, you know, its distance, when you look at Covid, there’s so many places in Indian country where you’re over a couple of hours away from an emergency room. But when it comes to democracy, that is just coming to light. And I guess we can thank Covid for this, because now people are beginning to understand that in order to vote, having to drive hundreds of miles is depression of the vote.
Monica Lopez To be sure, Covid and long distances from voting locations pose significant challenges, particularly for voters living on reservations. The U.S. Congress also chose to investigate voting barriers and the impact of the Supreme Court’s changes to preclearance and the Voting Rights Act. The Committee on House Administration’s Subcommittee on Elections held field hearings beginning in 2019. Six of those were in states with jurisdictions that had been covered by preclearance provisions. The other two were in states where voting barriers had been reported after the Supreme Court decision; one of those two states is North Dakota.
Charles Walker My name is Charles Walker and I serve as chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the federally recognized tribe located in both North and South Dakota. We have approximately 15,975 members 8,637 of whom live on a reservation. North Dakota has had voter I.D. laws in place since 2004, but for years the law still permitted individuals to vote if the poll worker could vouch for the identity of a qualified voter or the voter signed an affidavit swearing under penalty of perjury that he or she was qualified to vote. These exceptions were especially useful on the Standing Rock Reservation, where tribal members serve as poll workers and can vouch for almost every person within the community. This all changed in 2013. Democrat Heidi Heitkamp won a Senate seat in 2012 by less than 3000 votes, or roughly one percent of the state population. We believe Standing Rock votes had a large impact on that election. With Native American votes putting her over the top. In response, in 2013, the legislature immediately imposed an I.D. requirement that required a residential address.
Roger White Owl My name is Roger White Owl. I work for Chairman Mark Fox as the chief executive officer of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. Our Fort Berthold Indian Reservation is in western North Dakota along the Missouri River. As you know, in 2017, North Dakota passed a law that was designed to reduce the tribal vote. The state law requires IDs to have the current residential street address. This goes beyond the typical voter registration requirements. Our rural reservations and housing systems were not set up that way. Many of our members use a P.O. box for their addresses. We recently began developing community streets and housings with residential addresses. But our reservation is mostly rural. The state knew knew this and they used it to suppress tribal voters. The MHA Nation has more than 16,000 members. Almost 6,000 of our members are voting age and live on or near the reservation. Remember, elections in North Dakota get decided by a few thousand votes. The MHA Nation had to step in to take action to make sure that tribal members votes would be counted. As fast as we could begin issuing new tribal IDs and create street addresses for our members and their homes. Our enrollment office had limited staff and resources to do this work, in about a month and a half they issued 456 new IDs with new addresses. We did not get any support, any support from the state of North Dakota or our federal trustee. Even with all this work, about one third of our members still do not have tribal IDs. In addition, many of our addresses we used to make these ideas may not be accurate for the next election. Many tribal members listed a family home or a home where they are currently staying. This is not voter fraud. This is a result of an unworkable state law being applied to our reservation.
Monica Lopez Congressional Representative Bennie Thompson.
Bennie Thompson Just for the record, in Mississippi, my state, you can register to vote with a post office box. You don’t need a physical address as of this day. I’m registered, like everybody else in my little community of 500 people. So you get your mail at a post office box, you get your jury summons at a post office box. The other thing is to each of the witnesses, by requiring a physical address for registration, is it your testimony that that caused a financial burden on individuals? I’ll start with Mr. Walker and we’ll go.
Charles Walker Had the Standing Rock Sioux tribe not waived the five dollar fee for the tribal ID, you take a look at the testimony; 807 were issued. That in itself is substantial, to take a look at, not only supplies, the time and also the effort from our our partners and allies. I commute twenty six miles one day every day just to come here and conduct business. And if you’re in a financial hardship, that’s forty dollars guaranteed, that’s going to have to come out of pocket. And if you’re living on a fixed income, that’s bread and milk for a week, you know, are you going to eat or are you going to vote? So yes, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe did waive some of that. And ultimately, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is who had to take care of that cost. And I’ll say this for the record, too, is that the reason we have done that is because as elected officials here in this body, we also took an oath to the Constitution of the United States and those guaranteed so-called rights, we have to uphold those also.
Monica Lopez Congress member and chair of the subcommittee on Elections, Marcia Fudge.
Rep. Marcia Fudge I think that all of the tribes that had to go and create these IDs at the last minute at such great expense should send the federal government a bill. Maybe under Hovell, we could pay for all of the work, because what we really have done is create a poll tax by requiring that people go out and buy an ID that they don’t need for any other reason but to vote, they don’t need to drive because they don’t drive. They don’t need it for any other reason. So, in fact, the state has created a poll tax on your reservations and all of the people who live in them.
Monica Lopez Native Americans were granted their right to citizenship in 1924. That’s over 50 years after the passage of the 14th Amendment. And in 1962, the right to vote was fully and finally guaranteed for Native Americans in all 50 states. Speaking at a Native American voting rights hearing in Washington, D.C., New Mexico Congressional Representative Ben Ray Lujan.
Rep. Ben Ray Lujan The good news is that tribes and lawmakers are taking action. That’s why I introduced the Native American Voting Rights Act (NAVRA) with Senator Tom Udall, our colleagues Deb Holland and Sharice Davids and ranking member, Tom Cole. The Native American Voting Rights Act allows tribal governments to collaborate with their state counterparts to ensure native peoples have access to the ballot box. It directs states to accept tribal IDs for voter registration or identification purposes, requires precincts to honor requests to place polling locations on tribal lands, and ensure precincts seek tribal consent before changing polling locations. In places that require native language assistance under the Voting Rights Act, it allows tribes to determine the forms of assistance. Tribal governments are empowered to request federal observers when they believe native voters might be disenfranchised at the polls.
Monica Lopez Jacqueline De Leon is a member of Isleta Pueblo and is a staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF.
Jacqueline De Leon In 2015, NARF began the Native American Voting Rights Coalition (NAVRC) focused on increasing Native American access to the political process. Over two years the NAVRC completed a series of nine field hearings on the state of voting rights in Indian country. A hundred and twenty five witnesses shared their experiences of voting. I’m carrying their stories with me here today. Unfortunately, I come with dire news. Native Americans have to travel, frankly, absurd distances to register. Voters from Nevada tribes identified travel distance as the single biggest obstacle to registering. The closest elections office to the DuckWater Reservation is 140 miles each way. Pyramid Lake faces 100 mile round trip and the Walker River Reservation faces 70 miles. If states are required to give registrations with SNAP applications, the Department of Agriculture should likewise be required to give out and collect registration forms for the commodity program. Additionally, polling places are usually located in non-native communities. In Big Horn County, Montana, native voters must travel twice as far to reach their polling locations as non natives. This is but one example of many. Long distances are costly because they take time to travel, require missed work, child care, vehicle and gas money. What’s more, this travel is on dirt roads, which may be impassable in the winter month of November. But even more damaging is the message that remote polling places convey to voting tribal members. These distances communicate: your vote doesn’t matter, the system’s not for you. Mandating polling places on tribal lands, as NAVRA does, will dramatically decrease travel time for thousands of Native Americans across the country. Finally, discrimination is not just a relic of the past or the effect of past wrongs. In Arizona, racial tensions are so high between the Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians and the border town next to the reservation that border town residents regularly block the flow of water into the reservation. And for years, tribal members were forced to vote in that same border town. In South Dakota, voters were forced to vote in a repurposed chicken coop. In Montana, the number of registration cards accepted by county officials from native community organizations was arbitrarily limited to 70, creating an unnecessary barrier to registration. In South Dakota, the Buffalo County seat, located in Gann Valley, has full early voting access. Gann Valley only has a population of 12 people. And yet 25 miles away on the Crow Creek Reservation, Fort Thompson’s twelve hundred residents had no early voting. Despite calls from activists to provide a polling location in Fort Thompson, and despite HAVA (Help America Vote Act) funding being available, the county auditor refused and instead decided to forgo the usage of the funds altogether. In sum, as one tribal member explained, yes, I would like you “person at the poll” to respect me as a Native American. Respect my culture. But if you can’t do that, treat me as a human being and respect my elders and respect my children. Likewise, we ask for no more, and no less, than equal opportunity for all Native Americans to vote.
Monica Lopez We just heard excerpts of congressional field hearings on Native American voting rights and comments from Jacqueline De Leon, Judith LeBlanc, Charles Walker, Roger White Owl, Congress members Ben Ray Lujan, Bennie Thompson and chair of the House Subcommittee on Elections Marcia Fudge. For Making Contact, I’m Monica Lopez.
Anita Johnson You’ve been listening to Unblock the Vote 2020, on Making Contact. Thank you to the Omnia Foundation and the Park Foundation for support of our work. You can find a full list of credits and info on Free the Vote on our web site. At radioproject.org. And we’d love to hear from you. What other topics do you think we should cover? Join the conversation on Facebook. Our Twitter handle is: making_contact. And do me a favor. Check out our Instagram at: making contact radio project. Like a post or leave us a comment. I’m Anita Johnson. Thanks for listening.