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With Prop. 17, voters to decide whether parolees can vote in California

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Nearly 40,000 Californians who’ve been released from prison are still on parole. Proposition 17 would allow them to regain their right to vote.

Californians will soon decide whether to allow nearly 50,000 people convicted of felonies who are on parole to vote in future elections in the state, an issue that has divided the state’s leaders along party lines.

California’s Constitution disqualifies people with felony convictions from voting until their incarceration and parole are completed. Proponents of Proposition 17 say the constitutional amendment was proposed to help people who leave prison reintegrate into their communities.

The measure is supported by Democratic leaders including Gov. Gavin Newsom, state Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic nominee for vice president.

“It is unacceptable that in 2020 we continue to suppress voters and disenfranchise tens of thousands of individuals in marginalized communities,” said Bradford, vice chairman of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “Voting is the easiest way of reintegrating people back into society and letting their voices matter.”

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The initiative, which was put on the ballot by the Legislature, is opposed by the California Republican Party, Crime Victims United of California and GOP lawmakers including state Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), who said crime victims will be deprived of justice if felons can vote without completing the parole part of their sentence under supervision.

“It’s a great affront to victims and private citizens,” said Nielsen, a former chairman of the agency that is now the state Board of Parole Hearings. “The parole period is an integral part of the sentence to allow the individual to readjust to society and to sustain themselves to know that they really have changed.”

If Proposition 17 passes, those convicted of felonies who are still in prison would continue to be ineligible to vote. The current restriction on voting for those on parole does not extend to people who are convicted of crimes and placed on probation and who avoid time behind bars. The state Constitution allows people on probation to vote.

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Voters are weighing Proposition 17 as the Black Lives Matter movement has shone a bright light on the impact of the criminal justice system on communities of color.

“Taking away the fundamental right to vote is one example of how mass incarceration is designed to perpetuate racial inequities,” Los Angeles County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said. “Restoring parolees’ voting rights will give them not only a chance at redemption, but also add their valued voice back to our communities.”

The campaign for the initiative cites data from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation indicating that indicates 3 out of 4 men leaving California prisons are Black, Latino or Asian American, a fact the campaign blames on “persistent and systematic racial inequalities” in the criminal justice system.

“This means California’s constitution disproportionately locks people of color out of the voting booth,” the campaign says.

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Parole, Bradford added, “is not supposed to be a punishment.”

California and Connecticut currently mandate that people convicted of felonies must complete their prison and parole sentences before having their right to vote reinstated. An additional 19 states allow people convicted of felonies, but who are on parole, to vote.

Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia allow those convicted of felonies to vote even while they are incarcerated.

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The California Legislature has for years been moving in the direction of giving the power to vote to more people convicted of crimes. In 2016, lawmakers decided to allow voting by those in county jails.

A year later, lawmakers required that voter registration information be provided to formerly incarcerated people.

The California Legislature narrowly achieved a two-thirds vote in both houses to place the new constitutional amendment on this year’s ballot after Democratic lawmakers argued that providing voting rights gives people leaving prison a greater stake in their communities. The legislation was introduced by Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento).

But requiring people to complete parole before they can vote is justified, according to Harriet Salarno, founder of Crime Victims United of California, who said nearly half of those released from prison commit a new crime within three years.

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Salarno, whose eldest daughter was 18 when she was murdered, said the three years of parole that many released inmates get is an integral part of the process.

“That is a re-entry program to see if they can conform and live based on what they learned in prison,” she said. “We have to make sure they do not commit crimes and they are rehabilitated. If they complete the three years and they are good citizens we have no problem with it.”

The group Initiate Justice also sought to extend the right to vote to people convicted of felonies who are still in prison, but a petition drive for an initiative on that more ambitious proposal failed to collect enough signatures.

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A survey by Initiate Justice of more than 1,000 people convicted of felonies who are in prison or on parole found that only 37% voted before incarceration, but 98% said they would vote if they could because they want to have a voice in society, according to a legislative analysis of the initiative.

While no organized campaign committee has been formed to oppose the initiative, the campaign for the measure has raised $847,007, with a political committee controlled by Secretary of State Alex Padilla among the top spenders, raising $176,000.

Padilla, a Democrat and California’s top elections official, said there are public safety reasons why voting rights should be expanded.

Padilla said that jurisdictions that restore voting rights for people convicted of felonies see lower rates of re-offending by those leaving prison.

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“And we know civic engagement gives communities a stake in driving positive change,” he added.

A 2004 study published in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review found that among people who had been arrested previously, 27% of non-voters were rearrested, compared with 12% of voters.

“Voting appears to be part of a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to desistance from crime,” said the study by researchers Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, sociology professors at, respectively, the University of Minnesota and New York University.

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Nielsen said the initiative is part of an effort by Democrats to expand their party’s voter rolls, which already give them a substantial lead in voter registration in California.

In New York, which has similar demographics to California, people convicted of felonies and later released from prison were registered overwhelmingly as Democrats, according to a paper published in 2013 by researchers including University of Pennsylvania political scientist Marc Meredith.

Of those discharge records that match to at least one voter file record, 61.5% match only to Democratic voter records, said the study published in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

In New Mexico, 51.9% of paroled people convicted of felonies appeared to have been registered Democrats while 18.9% matched to Republican registrations, according to the paper.

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“It’s absolutely about Democratic votes,” Nielsen said of Proposition 17.

After Florida voters approved a ballot measure two years ago allowing people convicted of felonies to vote, Republican lawmakers enacted a law barring voting by residents with prior felony convictions unless they can show they have paid all fees, fines or other debts from their past crimes.

But Bradford said he supports Proposition 17 “because people on parole are our family, colleagues, and neighbors. They go to work, pay taxes, and do their part to reintegrate, but are left with no voice at all to participate in our democracy.”

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