LOS ANGELES - Proposition 17 is on the California ballot, and it would amend the State Constitution, allowing people on parole in the state to vote which is currently not allowed.
The proposition would also allow parolees to run for office if they're registered to vote and haven't been convicted of perjury or bribery.
Currently, people serving their sentences in county jails can vote unless they're transferring to a state or federal prison or serving time for a parole violation.
Brittany Stonesifer, a Voting Rights Attorney from the ACLU Northern California, is in support of Proposition 17.
"ACLU is in support of Prop 17 because it will restore voting rights for 50,000 people who are presently returning home after completing their prison sentence. These are individuals who are working, paying taxes, raising families and contributing to society in every other way, but they're presently being denied the right to have a voice in the policies and the representatives that affect their everyday lives, which is both counter to our democracy and it's counterproductive for helping those individuals reenter," said Stonesifer.
Colleen Britton, the Solano Coordinator for Election Integrity Project California, is part of the opposition.
"We think it's unnecessary and that's because currently under the state law and the [State] Constitution, felons have the right to vote again once their sentence is complete. That sentence includes parole. We think this is kind of jumping the gun. We think it's unwarranted also for several reasons because first of all, we think the right to vote is a privilege and they have thrown it away by their conduct and their disobeying the law and these are not just random petty crimes, these are serious crimes," said Britton.
Stonesifer points to studies showing a reduction in recidivism if a person is engaged in the voting process.
"There have repeatedly been studies that show voters have a lower rate of recidivism, and that connects civil engagement with more successful reentry. For example, one study that was in a Berkley Law Journal compared states across the US that had more or less restrictive voting rights for people with convictions, and it found that in states that automatically restored voting rights upon someone's release from prison, there's a 19% lower risk of recidivism than in states where there was permanent disenfranchisement for people with felonies," said Stonesifer.
Britton and members of the opposition believe the parolee needs to be able to show they've been rehabilitated during their parole period before being allowed to vote again.
"We think that they have obviously not regarded their right to vote before they committed the crime. It wasn't a deterrent so we don't think it should be used as a gift or an enticement to return to society. We think it should be earned and we think it should be earned by completing their period of parole. That period of parole is usually three years and within that time there, they are supervised closely by a parole officer to make sure that they're abiding by social standards and going to work and doing the work of citizens and not reoccurring crimes," said Britton.
Stonesifer disagrees with that argument.
"That perspective, I think, is just a fundamental misunderstanding of what the purpose of parole is. In the very first sentence of the California penal code that describes what the intention of parole is, it says that parole is a period that's critical to successful reentry and to exhibit positive citizenship. So to us, how can you ask someone to exhibit positive citizenship while at the same time denying them one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship which is the right to vote? If we are asking people to reenter their communities and to re-establish those connections, to have a stake in what happens in their communities then not giving them the right to vote, a very pro-social activity which is connected with lower rates of recidivism, why would we not give people that tool?" questioned Stonesifer.
The Legislature approved placing Proposition 17 [an amendment to the State Constitution] on the ballot by a two-thirds vote.
Stonesifer said denying a parolee the right to vote is a form of continued punishment after they've completed their sentence.
"It serves no criminal justice purpose. It doesn't help our democracy. It is just a continued punitive structure that really is a holdover from not just decades of tough on crime era but actually going back to the 1800s. It's a holdover from Jim Crow era policies, and it just continues to put this scarlet letter on people, particularly people of color because of the inequities in our criminal legal system," said Stonesifer.
"I don't think it's about race. I think it's about abiding by the law and there are plenty of people of color who aren't committing crimes. They have the right to vote so it's all about the law and abiding the law and we have a rule of law and if we don't observe that and acknowledge the rights and responsibilities that come with that law then we have chaos in our society. I don't think it's a race matter at all. I think it's a respect for law and order," argued Britton.
Britton believes allowing parolees to vote re-victimizes the victim.
"Re-instituting their rights before they have shown that they can be law-abiding citizens is a real insult to the victims. The right to vote is a privilege that we have and a right that we have as law-abiding citizens. When we violate the law, we lose that privilege and that right until it's earned again. To give somebody a right after they have victimized you, and they have the same right and privilege as you do without paying the full price and restitution for their crime, it's like giving somebody a diploma before they have finished 10th grade or something. You're giving something value before it's earned," said Britton.
"There's no connection there at all. To us, we also want to support victims and we also want to make our communities safer which is exactly what Prop 17 does. It reduces recidivism and it helps people reenter. It makes it less likely that they're going to be re-incarcerated or commit future crimes," said Stonesifer.
Currently, people on probation in California can vote while parolees cannot.
Britton argues Proposition 17 allows "violent offenders" to vote before paying their debts to society.
"The difference between probation and parole is the severity of the crime. That's the biggest difference right there. You're not talking about petty theft or shoplifting. These are rapists. They're violent criminals that have been imprisoned for violent crimes against law-abiding citizens," said Britton.
"When people are coming home from prison, regardless of what their conviction was, we want to give them the best tools available to help them reenter, and to avoid being reincarcerated, and having the right to vote and becoming civically engaged is a major part of that. We wouldn't want to deprive anyone based on their conviction of the opportunity to have a more successful reentry, and to avoid being re-incarcerated. If we were to carve out certain convictions and say only some people on parole can vote and other people on parole cannot vote, that actually just adds to the current confusion that many people already experience because of the state of the law. Right now California allows people to vote while they're on probation but prohibits people from voting while they're on parole. We're one of actually only four states in the country that does that and it causes widespread confusion," said Stonesifer.
Supporters of Proposition 17 include the League of Women Voters in California, Californians for Safety and Justice, and Governor Gavin Newsom. Opponents include Crime Victims United of California and the Election Integrity Project California.
If passed, Proposition 17 could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for voter registration and ballot materials.
MORE INFORMATION: https://voterguide.sos.ca.gov/propositions/17/