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.
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.