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Opinion: Spent time in prison? You can still vote

Updated: Oct 22, 2018

Originally published here. | By Ashley Carter and Robert Olive

Michigan is one of 16 states across the country where people with felony or misdemeanor convictions can vote, even if they are on probation or parole. In fact, people in jail awaiting trial can vote as well. As a state we should be doing a better job of informing people of their rights and dispelling popular misconception that people with criminal convictions cannot vote.

There are more than 50,000 Michigan citizens who have spent time in jail or prison. How many of these individuals have been provided misleading or incorrect information about their voting rights? And how many other ways are people who have spent time behind bars excluded from society? If we are serious about addressing the broken criminal legal system in this state and across the country, we have to be intentional about the ways that we help reintegrate the formally incarcerated back into society.

We also have to be diligent about holding elected officials accountable. This fall people will head to the polls to elect a new Secretary of State. This elected official has the power to direct Secretary of State offices across Michigan’s 83 counties to encourage citizens to register to vote, and to educate formally incarcerated individuals about their rights. We have adopted the draconian idea that people who are convicted of crimes should spend their lives paying the price.

If you actually look at the composition of our local jails and prisons, many individuals are locked up for petty crimes, and crimes of poverty and manifestations of homelessness and addiction. There are countless people in jail on bails that are less than $500, meaning that if they could come up with the money to post this amount they would be free to fight their cases outside of jail. Imagine $500 being the difference between spending countless days, months or even years in jail trying to fight your case, or having the ability to maintain your presence in society, keep your job, stable housing, or parent your child. 

Not only can we do better, we must do better. The right to vote is the linchpin of a democratic society. We owe it to one another to ensure that all people can exercise this right. The Michigan Department of Corrections has a 2 billion dollar budget, one of the largest line items for the state annually. Around 10,000 people were released from prison and into parole supervision in 2016. If the state is choosing to fund the carceral system as one of our biggest investments, instead of using this money to address the underlying causes and manifestations of behavior deemed criminal, then we should make sure that people in state custody are equipped with the tools to succeed upon release.

This means top-notch educational opportunities, job training, and real civil engagement. We should make the voting process easier and more accessible, not increasingly more arduous. We can invest in educating people about their rights. For example, many individuals, and even some poll workers, rely on the misnomer that a photo ID is required to vote. This is false. If an individual is registered to vote but doesn’t have a photo ID, they can fill own a sworn statement, called an affidavit, and still vote on election day. Similarly, you don’t need an address to register to vote.

If a person doesn’t have a home address, they can register using the intersection closest to where they are currently dwelling. Information like this is critical in cultivating voter registration and election day turnout in underserved and overlooked populations. The deadline to register to vote for the November general election is Oct. 9.

Collectively Michigan residents have the power to make voter education and widespread participation a priority so that all citizens can be included in the democratic process we proclaim to value so deeply. 

Ashley Carter, a native Detroiter, is a staff attorney at Advancement Project, a national racial justice organization.

Robert Olive is president of Detroit Nation Outside, a local organization focused on providing support for individuals upon their release from jail and prison.

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