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Disenfranchised by Misinformation: Victoria Law on the Millions Who Can Vote—But Might Not Know It

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Across the nation, almost 6 million people are prohibited from voting as a result of state felony disenfranchisement laws. Three-quarters of those now prevented from voting have been released from prison and are living in their communities either under probation, on parole or having completed their sentences. African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the laws. Florida has the highest number of disenfranchised voters—where nearly one in four black adults is disenfranchised. Meanwhile, in Vermont and Maine, prisoners can vote from jail. How will this impact tomorrow’s election? For more, we speak with Victoria Law, freelance journalist and author of the recent article, “Disenfranchised by Misinformation: Many Americans Are Allowed to Vote But Don’t Know It.” We also speak with Malissa Gamble, founder of The Time is Now to Make a Change, a support center for formerly incarcerated women in Philadelphia. She was incarcerated in Muncy, Pennsylvania, and released 13 years ago.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Donald Trump is accusing Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, of acting illegally by restoring voting rights to some 67,000 former felons. Trump made the remark during a speech in Leesburg, Virginia.

DONALD TRUMP: Your governor has illegally given voting rights to 60,000 felons. He’s letting criminals cancel out the votes of law-abiding citizens. You have to get everyone you know to the polls. We are going to win. We are going to have one of the great victories of all time.

AMY GOODMAN: Across the country, almost 6 million people are prohibited from voting as a result of state felony disenfranchisement laws. Three-quarters of those now prevented from voting have been released from prison and are living in their communities either under probation, on parole or having completed their sentences. African Americans have been disproportionately impacted by the laws. Florida has the highest number of disenfranchised voters, where nearly one in four black adults cannot vote. Meanwhile, in Vermont and Maine, prisoners can vote from jail. How will this impact Tuesday’s election?

To talk about the disenfranchisement of people who have spent time in the prison system under felony convictions, we’re joined by two guests. In Philadelphia, Malissa Gamble is with us, founder of The Time is Now to Make a Change, a support center for formerly incarcerated women in Philadelphia. She was imprisoned in Muncy, Pennsylvania, and released 13 years ago. Here in New York, Victoria Law is with us, freelance journalist, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. Her latest piece for Truthout is headlined “Disenfranchised by Misinformation: Many Americans Are Allowed to Vote But Don’t Know It.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! So, Victoria, tell us what the rules are. What are the laws for people who have been convicted of crimes in this country?

VICTORIA LAW: The laws vary around voting, state by state. So, in New York state, for instance, once you are out of prison and off of parole, you are allowed to vote. You may have to reregister, but you’re allowed to vote. But many people don’t know this. If you are in jail awaiting trial, you have not lost your right to vote. If you’ve been convicted of a misdemeanor, not a felony, you have not lost your right to vote. However, we don’t know how many hundreds of thousands or millions of people across the country are unaware of this, because they are often told by jail and prison officials that they have permanently lost their right to vote. This is often reinforced by the people who do release planning, by their probation officers, by their parole officers and even by misinformation in the community.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us some of the stories you write in your piece in Truthout.

VICTORIA LAW: One of the women I interviewed was actually a woman who had voted her entire life before she had gone to prison. And during her three-and-a-half years in prison, she had continually been told that she had lost her right to vote. So she was no longer able to—

AMY GOODMAN: Where was she in prison?

VICTORIA LAW: She was in prison in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. Federal prisons house people who are from all over the country. The people in the prison may not necessarily know or care about the individual state laws. And when she returned to New York state, she technically was allowed to vote, and she went for years thinking that she had lost that right. And it was not until she attended her friend’s wedding at City Hall and happened to see a poster stating that she had the right to vote if she had a—even if she had a felony conviction, that the lightbulb went off in her head that she could register. So she went to the voter information table and asked the person there, and they said, “Yes, you do indeed have the right to vote.” He handed her a registration form. She filled it out, and she received her voter registration card. But had she not looked at that poster, she might have gone for years, if not the rest of her life, thinking that she did not have that right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve done a lot on Rikers jail.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Eighty percent of the thousands of people there have not been charged—rather, haven’t been convicted.

VICTORIA LAW: Convicted, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Can they vote?

VICTORIA LAW: They—technically, they can vote. But how many people know this? We don’t know. Recently, the City Council passed a bill, which is waiting for the mayor’s signature, stating that the Department of Correction, which oversees New York City’s jails, including Rikers Island, has to actually promote voting. So it’s not enough for a person to go to a correctional officer and say, “Hey, I want to vote.” But they have to let people know that they have the right to vote, and they have to provide them with voting materials—registration forms and absentee ballots—no less than two weeks before any primary, special election or general election. In other words, they actually need to let people know and then make it easy for them to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Can people vote in Rikers tomorrow?

VICTORIA LAW: If they know that they have the right to vote, they—

AMY GOODMAN: On the day of Election Day?

VICTORIA LAW: Yes, they can fill out an absentee ballot. But it depends on the officer on duty. So, if you have an officer on duty that thinks that people cannot vote or doesn’t care to find the forms, then the person may not be able to vote. So what this law does is it systematizes it. And the fact that we need a law that says people are allowed to exercise their right should say volumes about the misinformation that goes around jails and prisons.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to comments by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, when we spoke to her last year.

MICHELLE ALEXANDER: We have to grant the right to vote not just to people upon release from prison. You know, so I have trouble with the framing of this as being a movement to end disenfranchisement laws, and say we should be allowing people in prison to vote, like many other Western democracies do. There are often voting drives within prisons in other Western democracies. And here in the United States, we deny people the right to vote not only when they’re in prison, but often when they’re out, and sometimes for the rest of their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: Malissa Gamble, that was Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. You are the founder of The Time is Now to Make a Change, a support center for formerly incarcerated women. What are you telling women now, who are incarcerated and also who have come out of prison?

MALISSA GAMBLE: I tell them that they have the right to vote and that they should allow their voices to be heard. You know, here in Philadelphia, we were—or Pennsylvania, we were granted the right to vote by one vote, and that vote was Doris Ribner-Smith—or Doris Smith-Ribner. And I tell them that if this wasn’t important, then they wouldn’t be trying to take it away.

AMY GOODMAN: So, how—what do people have to do in Pennsylvania? You know, clearly a swing state.

MALISSA GAMBLE: Well, it’s truth that returning citizens sway elections. If you were convicted of a felony and you come home on the day of election, as long as you’re registered to vote, you can vote here. You need to just participate. It’s been studied and stated that returning citizens who participate in three elections or more are less likely to recidivate. So, my thing is to go in, educate them, register them and get them to the polls.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter taking the decision to ban the term “ex-offender” and replace it with the phrase you just used, “returning citizens”?

MALISSA GAMBLE: Absolutely. In October, I believe, of 2013, Michael Nutter, with Wilson Goode Jr., signed an ordinance to change the name of “ex-offender” or “ex-convict,” because it put a stigma on there on people for jobs and for everything. It shut the door before you even had a chance to go in. So, he thought that it was wrong, and he wanted us to call ourselves “returning citizens.”

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another former prisoner who’s been advocating for voting rights, Desmond Meade, president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, as well as chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy. He was previously homeless. He is still disenfranchised. We spoke to him earlier this year about his own experience.

DESMOND MEADE: I had a drug addiction problem back in my younger days, and that caused me to go in and out of prison. At the time, I didn’t even realize that—you know, the collateral consequences that I faced by pleading guilty to a lot of these charges. But eventually, you know, in 2004, I got out of prison, and that was the last time I was ever in trouble. As a matter of fact, I took it upon myself to go above and beyond the call. You know, I went back to school. I dived into community service, dedicated my whole life to giving back to others, fighting for the homeless, fighting for the disfranchised, fighting for the children, you know, and thinking that by doing this and by excelling in school, that this country would see that I have been rehabilitated and that I am an asset to the community. Apparently everybody else thinks so but the state of Florida or the governor and his Cabinet, you know, because in spite of all that I’ve been able to overcome, to include graduating from FIU College of Law with a JD degree, I still—not only can I not vote, I can’t buy a home anywhere I want to, and I’m not even allowed to practice law, because I cannot even apply to the Florida Bar until my rights have been restored. Now, I can go to 48 other states and apply to the bar and practice law, but that just reminds me of the days of slavery, when all a slave had to do was cross a state line to get freedom. We’re in 2016. It’s time to get rid of these Jim Crow policies. An American citizen should not have to move to another state just to participate in the democratic process.

AMY GOODMAN: Desmond Meade also spoke about the increasing number of infractions that qualify as felonies in Florida.

DESMOND MEADE: It seems like every year our legislators create more felonies. In the state of Florida, you can get a felony conviction for disturbing turtle nesting eggs, driving with a suspended license, burning a tire in public, trespassing on a construction site. And my favorite was when a gentleman released helium-filled balloons in the air. He was immediately arrested and charged with a felony offense. And that is something that so many American citizens do without even thinking about the repercussions of that, specifically in Florida.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Desmond Meade. Malissa Gamble, if you could respond to this? And talk also about the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies, if it matters, in Pennsylvania.

MALISSA GAMBLE: Not when it comes to voting. It doesn’t—

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to voting.

MALISSA GAMBLE: You can vote with a misdemeanor or a felony conviction in the state of Pennsylvania. And I think that it goes to show—it’s another thing that I tell returning citizens, is that the laws are different in each estate. And here in Pennsylvania, we have the right to vote, and we shouldn’t take it for granted. The five-year waiting ban is over. And if you’re sitting in—on State Road, the—if you have a felony conviction, you can’t vote. But if estimated 10,000 people sitting on State Road and none of them have been convicted, those people are allowed to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk more about that, Victoria Law, this issue of who can vote and who can’t, not only in Pennsylvania and around the country, when it comes to misdemeanors, felonies? Malissa was just talking about the five-year waiting period that is no longer there in Pennsylvania.

VICTORIA LAW: Yes. So, different states have different laws around voting. In most states, you can vote if you have a misdemeanor conviction, but people don’t know this. For instance, I spoke to a woman who was recently released, earlier this—earlier last month, in Arizona. And nobody told her anything about her right to vote. So, she went through the sheet of papers that her probation officer handed her, and found out that she had to wait until she was off parole, but had she been convicted only of a misdemeanor, she retained her—she would have retained her right to vote throughout her entire prison sentence. Nobody had told her this. It was inapplicable to her, because she had been convicted of a felony. But if nobody had told that to her and she only learned this by going through a thick sheaf of papers because I asked her to, how many other people in the same situation don’t know this?

AMY GOODMAN: Malissa, what would it take people in Pennsylvania to know?

MALISSA GAMBLE: It would take them to know that there are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000—200,000 to 400,000 returning citizens in the state of—in the city of Philadelphia alone. If one-third of this population were educated, registered to vote and then participated, we do have the ability to sway elections. That’s not just the presidential election; that’s the local elections, where all of the decisions are made for us, you know. And here in Pennsylvania, we can vote on probation or parole, living in a halfway house, transitional housing. We can—we have the right to do all of that, where other people don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you telling the corrections system in Pennsylvania to inform people what their rights are once they get out?

MALISSA GAMBLE: We tell them—they, I believe—I believe that they instituted something where they give them a voter registration card upon release. But it has been my experience that once they’re out, they don’t—they don’t follow through on that. If you have a program in place such as ours, that goes in, educates and register them, do the absentee application, that’s much better. They get the ballot, but if you’ve got people that read below a five and eighth grade level, they don’t understand the ballot process. It takes more than that, and it’s going to take more work. But for the most part, returning citizens sway elections in the state of Pennsylvania. In Philadelphia alone, we have the ability to sway this presidential election.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t hear politicians, even those who are scrambling for every last vote—yes, we heard Donald Trump refer to “criminals.” That was people who came out of jail in Virginia being able to get the right to vote, and he was insulted and angry about that. But we don’t hear Hillary Clinton talking about people coming out of prison, Victoria, and telling them they can have the right to vote.

VICTORIA LAW: I think there’s still a stigma around people who have misdemeanor or felony convictions or any sort of arrest or criminal record. So we’re not seeing politicians actively courting them. While they may be talking about criminal justice reform, they’re not seeing them as people who they want to be seen reaching out to.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to leave it there. I want to thank you, Victoria Law, freelance journalist, author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women. We’ll link to your piece in Truthout, “Disenfranchised by Misinformation.” And Malissa Gamble, thanks so much for being with us from Philadelphia, The Time is Now to Make a Change, a support center for formerly incarcerated women in Philadelphia.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. When we come back, Michael Moore. Stay with us.

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