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 place 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 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 or not. 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’ve come a long way in life since I was released from prison. I now hold an executive position at the company that changed my life while I was incarcerated, and I lead a nonprofit that provides reentry support and career opportunities for other currently and formerly incarcerated women. I’ve done everything in my power to turn my life around completely, and I’ve earned a lot of success because of it. My past and my criminal record are part of who I am, but they do not define me. However, navigating all of the hurdles in the way of regaining my right to vote reinforced the shame of my past that I carry, the imposter syndrome – a familiar feeling for anyone who has been incarcerated. When my first petition was denied, and as I battled through getting my second petition approved, it felt a lot like when I was first released from prison. I had to relive the stigma that, in all other areas of my life, had been put far behind me.
Even after retaining a lawyer, paying off all my remaining restitution, and going back and forth to the courthouse more times than I could count, I was still not guaranteed that my rights would be restored. However, after many years and many thousands of dollars, I’m finally able to vote again. I thought I would be overjoyed, but I ended up overwhelmed. The process of becoming an informed and responsible voter is harder than I could have imagined. Civics and responsible citizenship are barely taught in schools, and certainly not taught in prison.
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. However, I also believe that we need programs and infrastructure in place to better help disenfranchised people restore their rights and become responsible voters. In all honesty, I believe we need better voter education for all Americans because too many of us take the right to vote for granted. More than 158 million people voted in the 2020 election, amounting to 62.8% of people of voting age in the U.S. While that is considered impressive voter turnout, more than one third of voting-age adults did not vote.
This year, I’ve spent weeks researching the issues and each candidate’s position. And I’ve been able to engage my family in the process, encouraging them to become more informed voters as well. This has been an especially tough election for me because I’m divided on the issues in Arizona. After all this time and effort, I needed to make sure that I knew exactly who and what I would be voting for.
I was never sure that going through this process would be worth so much struggle. But after casting my ballot on election day, I knew that it was. I want every American to know and appreciate that feeling, regardless of their past. Because when every voice is heard, that’s when true democracy exists.