Voting is an integral part of American democracy. It gives people a say in what happens in our country, and our progress toward justice has always run through allowing more, not fewer, people to vote.
Still, not everyone in America can participate equally in voting. When I was very young, my father took me with him to the polls. He said he had to renew his right to vote. Apparently, the right to vote was a temporary thing, or so I thought while watching my old man fill out forms, standing in many lines with him, and listening to him answer the same questions over and over and over again. When he finally renewed his right to vote, he was told he had to return the next day to vote because the polls were closed. The renewal process had taken all day. When we returned the next day, my father was denied his right to vote because of his prior felony convictions despite all the paperwork he completed the day before. This made my father furious. He raised his voice in protest. When police approached him, he took me by the hand and we left the polls, never to return. When I asked him about it, he simply told me that black men were not allowed to vote in this country despite the Civil Rights Movement.
The whole process troubled me. The only people I saw having to renew their voting rights looked like me. When I asked my teacher about voting, she referred me to the United States Constitution. Between reading the Constitution and a few good history books I discovered something startling.
The Fourteenth Amendment reads, in part, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The Fifteenth Amendment reads, in part, “The rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Taken together, these amendments should guarantee all U.S. citizens the equal protection of their rights, including the right to vote, and states should be prohibited from passing laws that deny citizens their rights. This also means everyone should be able to vote, even people who were previously locked up. Yet, too often, ex-felons like my father have been forbidden from exercising their right to vote.
This November, the Voting Restoration Amendment will be on the ballot in Florida. It would allow people with prior felony convictions to vote in that state. There are efforts to get the Voting Restoration and Democracy Act ballot in California eventually. That initiative would allow incarcerated people and those on parole to vote. For too long people who are in prison or on parole have been denied the right to vote and are therefore not allowed to participate in the democratic process.
My dad never tried to renew his voting rights again, even though California subsequently extended the right to those off parole. He was disillusioned with the idea of democracy and felt like true democracy did not exist. Being excluded from the democratic process because of his bad choices when he was young gave him a sour taste for politics. Despite his ill feelings toward democracy, he encouraged me to get as involved as I could and fight for the right to vote. He always said that voting was the only way to truly exercise the power of choice in this country. Now I am in the same position he was once in, and I am fighting and writing so that in future generations all people have a say over what happens in this country.