If I can make positive changes and do the right thing, so can California.
Democracy in California is an illusion.
Those in power want us to believe every voice matters, but the truth is voter suppression is a reality, exposing the hypocrisy of democracy in this so-called “land of the free.”
I do not consider myself “political” by any means. I just know what feels right and what feels wrong, what is just and what is unjust. This may sound hypocritical coming from someone who committed wrongdoing and unjustly harmed his community, but it’s exactly because I once stood on the side of tyranny and social exclusion that I can credibly speak on it. In my youth, I harmed my community, which is why today I am steadfastly committed to healing my community. I owe it to my community to assertively challenge all forms of harm and discrimination, including political oppression.
During my 25-year incarceration, I reflected on the injustices I committed against my community and worked very hard toward turning my life around. If I can make positive changes and do the right thing, so can California. Life experience has shown me that it is never too late to change. California can do better.
The Parole Board and Governor Brown deemed me safe enough to return to the free community, so why am I not deemed safe enough to vote? I love my community but I feel like a second-class citizen. I cannot and will not feel free as long as the political shackles of voter suppression continues to constrain my voice. I am an exile in my own country, an outsider looking in. I dream of the day when I can legally and rightfully cast the ballot and fully serve my community with the rights and duties of full citizenship.
In California, there are 50,000 voices just like mine: voices that primarily belong to Black and Brown people, voices that are silenced. These voices do not have a say in where their tax dollars go. These citizens do not have a voice in the way resources are allocated in their communities. They do not get to choose which politicians represent their districts. As long as the disenfranchisement of thousands of tax-paying citizens continues to plague California, we cannot honestly call our government a democracy. A true democracy includes the voices of all its citizens. Every voice should matter, and all stakeholders should have a say in what happens to their communities.
In California, there are 50,000 voices just like mine: voices that primarily belong to Black and Brown people, voices that are silenced.
One of the major causes of the American Revolution was “taxation without representation.” Our founding fathers held the firm belief that no government should tax its citizens unless those citizens have representation in the political process responsible for imposing those taxes. Political activist and American founding father James Otis declared that “taxation without representation is tyranny.” Other founding fathers embraced this evident truth and fought to make their voices heard in determining where their tax dollars go. You would think that centuries later, in a progressive state such as California, voter suppression would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, political tyranny is still at play in the Golden State, continuing to inflict harm on countless communities.
It is wrong to suppress the voice of any tax-paying citizen and resident of California. Period! Citizens on parole in California are deprived of their right to vote. Why is that? What is the purpose for intentionally and systematically suppressing these voices, specifically?
In searching for the answer, I went back to 1849 and read California’s first Constitution. Article II, Section 1, states, “Every white male citizen…shall be entitled to vote at all elections.” From the beginning, Black and Brown people were excluded from the political process. California’s state government was set up to legally and politically preserve the institutions of patriarchy and white supremacy. Women and people of color were intentionally subjugated. This historical fact is often and conveniently overlooked. Those in power control the narrative, so they want us to believe California’s myth that every citizen’s voice matters. Deception and manipulation are political tools that have been used for centuries to keep the masses ignorant of their subjugation. It is easy to control people when they think they are free.
California takes the lead on many social justice issues, but takes a back seat when it comes to the enfranchisement of its non-white citizens.
Some may argue that voter suppression is a thing of the past, and it is true that we have made some progress in allowing citizens’ voices to be heard. The Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote. The Fifteenth and the Twenty-fourth Amendments along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 made it easier for Blacks to vote. It should be noted that California waited 100 years until after Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment before they finally signed on to giving Black males the right to vote. California takes the lead on many social justice issues, but takes a back seat when it comes to the enfranchisement of its non-white citizens.
These concessions by the United States government must be acknowledged and commended. However, it must also be acknowledged that these concessions only came about due to years of political activism by suppressed voices and oppressed people. History has shown us that those in control of the political process do not give up power willingly. The right to vote must be demanded. As long as there are some citizens who are subjugated, we are all subjugated. Like Dr. King said, “no one is free until we are all free.”
What is the fear of allowing tax-paying citizens who are on parole the right to vote? These people have served their time. Some may argue that giving parolees the right to vote will destroy our communities. All hell will break loose! This is a common misconception doggedly held by people blind to the facts. Fourteen states allow parolees the right to vote. In addition, Maine and Vermont allow parolees to vote as well as people incarcerated in their state prisons. According to the US News & World Report public safety rankings, Maine and Vermont rank 1 and 2, respectively, on having the lowest overall crime rates. California ranks 35 on the list. What do the numbers tell us? First, felony disenfranchisement does not make communities safer. On the contrary, when returning residents feel excluded from the political process and are outright discriminated against for simply being on parole, they are less likely to successfully reintegrate back into their communities. In fact, all 14 states that allow parolees the right to vote have lower crime rates than California, according to US News & World Report public safety rankings.
Others argue that citizens give up their right to vote once they are convicted of a crime. It is true that many rights are forfeited upon breaking the law. However, convicted felons do not give up their rights to citizenship. In fact, incarcerated people in California’s state prisons are counted in a district’s citizen population when determining the number of representative seats in the state assembly. Convicted felons do not give up their right to citizenship, they do not give up their right to democracy, and, upon completion of their prison sentence, they do not give up their right and responsibility to pay taxes. Therefore, they should have a voice in choosing their political representatives and other issues that affect the communities they come home to.
Felony disenfranchisement is the direct result of suppressing the political power of Black and Brown citizens. Demographics of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation reveal that three out of four people in state prison are people of color. This means that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects historically oppressed groups, yet another indication that it is a covert strategy of maintaining white supremacy as envisioned by the early framers of the state constitution.
Speaking for myself, as a disenfranchised citizen, the issues that are important to me include: safer neighborhoods, more funding and resources for public education, affordable housing, increased employment opportunities, and quality healthcare. How are these concerns a threat to society?
Ask parolees, if given the right to vote, what they would vote for. Speaking for myself, as a disenfranchised citizen, the issues that are important to me include: safer neighborhoods, more funding and resources for public education, affordable housing, increased employment opportunities, and quality healthcare. How are these concerns a threat to society? I pay taxes, I’ve done volunteer work with the San Francisco Community Clean Team, and I’m providing essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic with my work at Urban Alchemy. I’m also a full-time college student at SF State and interning at District 10 Supervisor Walton’s office. Am I less of a citizen, less a part of my community, because I’m on parole?
California is at a critical point in history. During this pandemic we have an opportunity to make our beloved state stronger by making our democracy stronger. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6 (ACA 6) seeks to restore the voting rights of 50,000 disenfranchised California citizens. Should the amendment pass the legislature and win at the ballot box in November, it will eliminate voter suppression and ensure that all voices are heard in the political process. Giving parolees the right to vote is not only a civil rights issue, it is a human rights issue that will allow true democracy to shine brightly on our Golden State.
J. Vasquez is the Lead Participatory Defense Coordinator at Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ), a Free The Vote 2020 coalition organization. At 16 years old, he was tried in adult court and sentenced to 31 years to life. He was incarcerated for over 25 years. In addition to his work at CURYJ, J. is a full-time student at SF State University, where he is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Criminal Justice.