Convicted Felons: A Case for Voting Rights

with Victoria Kirby York of National LGBTQ Task Force

An estimated 6.1 million people in the United States cannot vote due to a felony conviction. And for the LGBTQ population, individuals are incarcerated at higher rates and often serve longer sentences compared to non-LGBTQ individuals. Victoria Kirby York, Deputy Director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, discusses why restoring voting rights to this population may contribute to positive outcomes post-incarceration.

Posted on:

May 29, 2019

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: The right to vote is one of the central pillars of our country's democracy, but if convicted of a felony, many people lose that right while they're in prison, possibly even after release. Hi. Welcome to "Comcast Newmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. If and/or when the right to vote is restored is actually governed on the state level. A recent study done by the UCLA School of Law found that people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates -- three times the general U.S. population. Joining me is Victoria Kirby York from the National LGBTQ Task Force. Victoria, I want to talk about how these statistics I talked about -- how do they impact the LGBTQ community?

York: It has a significant impact on the LGBTQ community. When we look at our share of the voting population, in so many states during the 2016 election, the Electoral College vote was decided based on less than 100,000 votes. So when you think about the LGBTQ population in any given state -- as an example, Florida -- there's a significant number of people who have completely lost the right to vote in the state, and you have folks who would be able to vote for people, candidates who would help push through policies like the Equality Act.

Lisnek: And there you are, I think, with your -- It's the crux of the issue, your pulse on the issue, which is to say there is the political piece of this, "But look how people might support an issue," and there's the civil rights piece of this. Is the political piece the block in this area?

York: I think, in my cases, it's been the block in this area for well over 100 years. When you think about the reason why convicted felons aren't allowed to vote currently and why, you know, a proposal like allowing people to vote in jails and prisons causes conversation is that shortly after slavery, when we ratified amendments around citizenship and the right to vote, that is actually also the amendment that gave freedom to folks who were enslaved, but it also went about creating a process that would pull African-Americans out of the electoral process to weaken our ability to vote by, when someone goes to jail, losing that right. And so when you look at, particularly, queer people of color who are disproportionately impacted both because of race and because sexual orientation and gender identity, you have a systematic reason for pulling away people who would vote on progressive initiatives that would restore equitable policies around poverty, immigration reform, healthcare, and so many other issues that we all care so much about.

Lisnek: It does impact so many areas. I kind of said this leading in, but they vary by state. So you might live in one state and find that you get out of prison and you can vote, and in another state, no, you can't. What is the need for sort of a reformation on the national, federal level?
York: Yes. I mean, there definitely needs to be federal guidelines that goes around no matter where you live, because, currently, it is very much if you live in one state, you have these rights, if you live in this other state, you have those rights. So, for instance, in Florida, prior to the Amendment 4 vote last November, the right for people to be able to get their eligibility to vote restored depended on who was governor. So, under Governor Charlie Crist, folks got the right to vote back after they finished serving their sentence. Under Governor Rick Scott, it had to go through a board, and the process could take

Lisnek: So, from a political perspective on it, some people would say, "Look, if you're in prison, one of the penalties is you lose your right to vote. Sorry," right? But here's the thing. What this study we're referring to tells us is, "But you know what? When you come out of prison, if you get your right to vote back, it makes a difference in terms of your life."

York: It makes a huge difference in terms of your life. The right to vote has implications on the Safety Net programs that we have, whether or not there are resources for Medicaid, food stamps, things that help folks who are working 40 hours a week but still can't afford to make ends meet, be able to care for their families, and ensure that their kids have the same rights and access to opportunity that someone who's in a wealthier class is able to provide for their kids.

Lisnek: There's also data that shows whether or not somebody who has had a bad experience with the law, if they get the right to vote, there's an impact on recidivism.

York: Oh, yeah. There's an impact on recidivism. If you're a full participating member of our democracy, as a citizen, you're less likely to commit other crimes because you feel more responsible for your community, for your neighbors, in addition to your loved ones. And so it actually does all of us good when we have people who are able to actively participate in our democracy because -- Just because you go to jail, you don't lose your citizenship. You're still a citizen of this country. You still have ways in which you're counted for purposes of representation in government. We have the census coming up, and so that's a huge focus around the census, how and where people are counted.

Lisnek: And that's one of the troubles. When politics meets civil rights, the battles begin. Appreciate the work you're doing, and thank you so much.

York: Thank you so much.

Lisnek: Victoria Kirby York from the National LGBTQ Task Force. Appreciate your time, and thank you for joining us, as well. If you want more great conversations with leaders in your community, across our country, all you have to do is go to I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks for watching.

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