October 28, 2020
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For Americans returning home from prison, having the right to vote means having a voice

Even after serving their time and re-entering society, millions of Americans can’t vote because of their criminal record.

Over 5 million Americans of voting age can't cast a ballot this year because of felony disenfranchisement. Photo by Getty Images

Today, for the first time in his life, Shannon Battle voted in a presidential election. Battle, who is 44, was sentenced to life in prison when he was just 17 years old; he has waited half his adult life to gain the right to vote.

“[I’ve seen] how the system did everything it could to prevent those of color, and people like myself, from voting. Just having the ability to go up there and cast my vote was probably one of my greatest achievements,” said Battle, who voted for the first time in the D.C. primary in June.

Shannon Battle vote sticker

Shannon Battle, who spent 25 years in prison, voted for the very first time this year. Photo courtesy of Shannon Battle

Five million Americans like Battle are unable to vote in the 2020 election because they have been convicted of a felony at some point in their lives, according to the nonprofit The Sentencing Project. Each state creates its own felony disenfranchisement laws; at the extreme end, 11 states bar some or all citizens from voting even after they’ve served their sentence and re-entered society. These laws disproportionately impact voters of color, effectively disenfranchising 1 in 16 Black Americans, a rate 3.7 times greater than non-Black Americans. Many of these laws trace their origins back hundreds of years, created after the end of the Civil War.

“Where we are now is because the whole system at the beginning of the country was purposefully and intentionally shutting out people of color from the political system,” said Tara Libert, co-founder and executive director of Free Minds Book Club & Writing Workshop. The D.C. nonprofit offers support to incarcerated youth charged as adults, like Battle, who now works there as a racial justice educator and youth mentor. Free Minds was a 2017 recipient of a Renewal Award, a program of The Atlantic and Allstate.

Free Minds also helped lobby D.C. officials to restore currently incarcerated citizens’ right to vote with the Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2019, which makes D.C., Vermont, and Maine the only jurisdictions in the U.S. to do so. Similar nonprofit and grassroots efforts across the country have worked over the past few decades to change the laws in multiple states, leading to the restoration of voting rights to 1 million voters between the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Libert says that since the Restore the Vote Amendment, she’s seen a surge of interest in voting rights from Free Minds’ incarcerated members, who can request books on a topic of their choice. “It’s incredible the amount of interest [we’ve had] in voter suppression, the history of voting, the Voting Rights Act. We are constantly sending out those books and materials,” she said.

Kareem McCraney is the chair for the Democratic Caucus for Returning Citizens, as well as the Poet Ambassador for Free Minds, and in both roles he works to legally restore and educate incarcerated and returning citizens about their voting rights. McCraney is also a paralegal, a program analyst at the DC Corrections Information Council, and a returning citizen himself; at 17 he was convicted of a felony and spent over two decades in prison. McCraney says that voting rights are essential to giving those without a voice the power to make systemic changes.

“Legislation and policy impact our lives; they impact the lives of our family members. With that being said, if you don’t have the ability to vote, you don’t have the ability to participate in the process,” said McCraney. “This is the reason, in my estimation, that the ability to vote for returning citizens and the currently incarcerated is so important.”

McCraney has dedicated himself to helping others overcome barriers to voting, including educating voters about how their vote can perpetuate change. He says that many incarcerated voters don’t know that they can vote, and they aren’t the only ones: a Brennan Center for Justice and ACLU study found that hundreds of thousands of voters may be mistakenly disenfranchised because election officials don’t know the laws regarding who can vote and who can’t. McCraney says other returning citizens believe their vote won’t matter, and that it’s incumbent upon him to, “Get people to see how serious and how important it is to vote, and how your vote can perpetuate change.”

By voting, McCraney says that others will have the power to leverage politicians to invest in their communities. And this year, like Battle, he’ll be able to vote in the presidential election for the first time.

“When we go to the table and we have the opportunity to talk to these politicians, they’re going to understand whose interests we have. And they’re going to have to listen, if they want our vote,” said Battle. “The sky is the limit.”

Visit the Free Minds website to find out how you can get involved.

To learn which states disenfranchise those with felony convictions, read The Sentencing Project’s report, Locked Out 2020, or sign their petition.

Arielle Samuelson

Arielle Samuelson is a senior editor at Atlantic 57 and a contributor to The Renewal Project.