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People released from prison deserve automatic voting restoration

(Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

(Jim Weber/Daily Memphian via AP)

The right to vote is inherent to U.S. democracy, yet Arizona makes it inherently difficult for returning citizens to restore their voting rights.

Anyone convicted of a felony in Arizona automatically loses their right to vote. One would think that when a person is released from prison – having paid their debt to society – voting rights would be automatically reinstated. This is not what happens in most states. And according to the ACLU, Arizona has one of the harshest voting restoration processes in the country.

Michelle Cirocco

Michelle Cirocco

In Arizona, voting rights are restored after certain criteria are considered or met: severity of the crime, probation after time served, and payment of fines or restitution. Fines can range as high as $150K.

As returning citizens leave prison, they are faced immediately with having to find housing and meaningful work. They need food, clothing, appliances, and toiletries. They are focused on reintegrating into their families and navigating a changed world. The re-entry list is overwhelming. They must prioritize. Voting restoration falls to the bottom. This seems systematically designed this way. If society makes it difficult to reinstate one’s right to vote, perhaps they’ll forget about it. It seems they have.

Today, there are more than 221,000 Arizonians who have completed their sentences yet remain disenfranchised. They are taxpaying citizens who are denied the right to vote on the issues that impact them, their families and their communities. This is antithesis to the idea that second chances and social forgiveness are important American values. Voting rights should be automatically reinstated without strings attached.

Becoming an advocate of voting re-enfranchisement requires a change in the way people think about people in prison. The narrative that’s widely accepted today is that U.S. prisons are reserved for the worst that society has to offer and that those who are incarcerated are unsalvageable. This is a myth. About one-third of Americans today have a criminal record so the reality is they have to be salvageable.

Creating barriers to regain voting rights penalizes people after they’ve paid for their mistake. It eliminates their hope of overcoming stigmas and their desire to contribute to our shared country in a way that is not only meaningful but is their right as a citizen.

There is another way.

Rehabilitation and redemption must be central in the U.S. prison system so that people can heal. Programs must be designed to upskill, educate and empower people to address the issues that led them to prison. By doing so, these individuals will be well prepared to reenter society and build a life far different than the one they lived when they entered prison. In turn, public perception will change on how individuals with a criminal record are viewed. When society sees that people can change and transform for the better, the instinct then becomes to lift them higher, to provide opportunities that enable them to thrive, and to restore all their rights without hesitation or strings attached.

As you cast your votes this election year, let’s remember our fellow community members who can’t–not because they are unwilling to participate but because of anti-democratic processes that send the message that their voices don’t count. Commit to change, not just for them, but for our country. Because when every voice is heard, that’s when true democracy exists.

Michelle Cirocco is a criminal justice reform advocate and Chief Social Impact Officer for Televerde (www.televerde.com), an integrated sales and marketing technology organization based in Phoenix, Arizona.

3 comments

  1. Thank you for your thoughts and opinions on this important subject. I’m wondering how it ever became a law in the first place that people would have the birthright of citizenship stolen from them solely because of an action they took in the past. That should have never happened in the first place. Years ago, when a person suffered the horrors of prison,that was considered their way of “paying their debt to society”. Not so anymore. In Arizona, you will pay for the rest of your life. And pay dearly- there are over 800 consequences for a felony in this state.Your life will never be the same and you will be re-tried for your mistake every time you try to find a place to live, work, or be in a relationship with somebody. People leaving prison after serving their time should at the very least be allowed to regain the basic American right to vote.

  2. middlegroundprisonreform

    This information is not entirely accurate. In Arizona, after conviction of a FIRST TIME (one count) felony of any type — no matter how serious the offense, including murder — civil rights are automatically restored upon absolute discharge from the sentence. My husband, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 1974 and who was granted absolute discharge in 2001, registered to vote the very next day after he was discharged. So, in that regard, Arizona is very liberal in its civil rights restoration laws. The author is correct that other offenders with multiple counts or convictions, restitution or fines to pay must first pay off these debts in order to receive the absolute discharge that is required prior to filing to have civil rights restored. We should be working on those targeted offenders, but leave in place the current and very acceptable provision allowing AUTOMATIC CIVIL RIGHTS RESTORATION, without even having to go to court, for FIRST-TIME, ONE COUNT OFFENDERS WHO ARE GRANTED AN ABSOLUTE DISCHARGE.

  3. These rules are an extension of the class warfare that has crowded our prisons for decades. Laws are written so that some groups of people are more guilty than others, the distinction being set primarily by “race”. The loss of voting rights for some people is just fine with those who make the laws. If this opinion seems extreme, anyone can find statistics to show it’s not. This history of vote-control is now magnified by new, more obvious voter suppression methods.

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