On Election Day this year, I voted for the second time ever in my adult life. I haven’t been shirking my civic duty, though it may seem that way. This Election Day was the first time I’ve been able to vote since navigating the long, difficult, and expensive process of having my voting rights restored. More than 25 years ago, I was incarcerated with a felony conviction.
After I was released from prison, I knew I had a long road ahead of me to regain access to many of the rights and privileges people take for granted every day. I accepted that my incarceration was an appropriate consequence for my actions. But if there is one thing that just about everyone with a criminal record knows, it’s that our society continues to punish you long after you walk out of the prison gates.
Functioning in society after incarceration is overwhelming. Being released from prison means rebuilding your life from the ground up. The most immediate concerns are finding gainful employment and stable housing. It’s no easy task, as companies and property owners have only recently started to soften their stance on hiring or housing people with a criminal record. Many also need to navigate parole or probation, which impose further limitations on what we can do and where we are able to go. With all the struggles, both large and small, that people with criminal records face daily after they are released from prison, restoring one’s voting rights is rarely at the top of anyone’s priority list.
That’s how I felt about my own right to vote. I had kids to raise and a family to take care of, along with a job that I was passionate about, and at which I wanted to be successful. Navigating the system in Arizona to restore my rights felt impossible when there was so much work to be done to get the rest of my life back on track. But over the years, my stance on voting changed.
It occurred to me that my kids didn’t exercise their right to vote, and I realized that was because I hadn’t been able to. It was never really a topic of conversation in our household, and I hadn’t been able to set that example for them. That realization lit a fire under me to start the process to restore my rights. Unfortunately, the first time I tried in 2011, my petition was denied. It would be another decade before I had the resources and legal support I needed for a successful petition.
Voting rights restoration varies from state to state. The only states in which people with felony convictions never lose their right to vote are Maine and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia. In 37 states, voting rights are restored automatically upon release from prison, or after the full sentence is completed, including parole and/or probation. In the remaining 11 states, people with felony convictions lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes or require a governor’s pardon, face an additional waiting period after completion of a sentence, or require other action before voting rights can be restored.
In Arizona, a petition must be sent to the court and a judge decides whether to grant the petition. 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.
I firmly believe that restoration of a person’s voting rights should be automatic after they are released from prison. I feel even more solid in that stance having gone through the process to restore my own right to vote.
Michelle Cirocco is the chief social responsibility officer for Televerde, a global revenue creation partner supporting marketing, sales and customer success for B2B businesses around the world.