Published 10:26 PM EDT Sep 6, 2018
In 2008, I sat in the cold day room of a prison in Gainesville, Florida, watching the election of the country's first African-American president, and I, like so many other people across the country, felt a mix of pride and awe.
But as a black man who had never voted and had spent more than two decades rotating in and out of incarceration, I also felt a sense of shame — the acute sting of having wasted my life. I had bought into the notion I had grown up with, that blacks couldn't achieve or succeed.
I've been a resident of New York now for eight years. And as our primary elections approach, I'm reminded of that time when, because of my history of incarceration, I was not able to vote at all.
I'm far from the only person in America who has had this basic right stripped away. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, maintain full voting rights for felons. California allows people in county jails to vote. But most states impose severe restrictions. And an estimated 6 million Americans who have been convicted of a felony (many of whom have served their time) are shut out of this year's primaries and midterm elections.
Next week, at the age of 49, I'll go to the polls after having my right to vote restored only eight years ago. I'm among the lucky ones. I live in a state that allows felons to vote during parole and probation. But for far too many former felons, getting back to the polls is not that easy.
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Longing to take action
The 2008 presidential election held such historic meaning that the prison guards allowed those of us who wanted to see its outcome to watch (lights were usually off by 10 p.m.).
I had never voted. And in the disadvantaged neighborhood I grew up in, I never even felt like an American citizen. But that night, I gained a new perspective, respect and belief in the rights of all Americans to participate in this democratic process.
I watched news outlets from around the world report on President Barack Obama's historic win, and I was in sheer disbelief. I saw the faces of some of our great civil rights leaders who had marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., including Rep. John Lewis and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. I saw the cheers, applause and joy on the faces of young students who had turned out in droves at the voting booths. I saw the tears of old black men and women who had lived through the dark years of Jim Crow. All races had come together under one inspiring leader.
The newly elected president summarized the feeling of unity in his victory speech: "It's the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white. ... We have never been just a collection of individuals or a collection of red states and blue states. We are, and always will be, the United States of America."
That night, I finally felt like an American.
But I also realized that having a criminal record would forever deem me a second-class citizen. I cared for the first time about how that status would hinder my ability to uplift my voice and add it to the millions of others who made that moment happen.
Unlike the generation of blacks before me who were denied the right to vote based on the color of their skin, this new alienation would assign me to another type of caste system, one that supposedly has nothing to do with my race but everything to do with my criminal background.
The specter of race
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels and opened the door of opportunity for African-Americans to exercise their right to vote.
In her book "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," Michelle Alexander describes a new and more dangerous form of voting discrimination, one cloaked in the legality of the criminal justice system.
Alexander writes: "Jarvious Cotton cannot vote. Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy. Cotton’s family tree tells the story of several generations of black men who were born in the United States but who were denied the most basic freedom that democracy promises — the freedom to vote. ... Cotton’s great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave. His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote. His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation. His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests. Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole."
Most people understand that the practice of voter discrimination was rooted in racial prejudice. Denying the right to vote based on criminal record continues the same kind of discrimination. Blacks are still denied that right due to criminal conviction four times more than any other group, leaving our democracy fundamentally flawed. For far too many, the right to vote remains as elusive as it did for those held in the bondages of slavery or those terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan, a fact that renders the Voting Rights Act of 1965 hollow.
Of the estimated 6 million Americans who can't vote, about half have finished serving their time, some are on probation or parole. Some states, like Delaware, Wyoming and Tennessee require a pardon or other petition to restore voting rights for the same individuals who live, work, raise families and pay taxes like all other residents.
If state executives care about the future of our country, they will follow New York and other states in restoring voting rights as quickly and easily as possible to former inmates.
Re-entry into society is one of the most critical junctures in the lives of the formerly incarcerated. Outside of helping former inmates navigate critical social challenges such as educational, employment and housing discrimination, the immediate restoration of voting rights is one of the most critical things we can do to encourage and facilitate success. It gives validity, purpose and a voice to individuals who have been marginalized and shut out of our democracy.
More than that, restoring voting rights reaffirms a fundamental American truth — that we are a country of second chances.
Terrance Coffie is an adjunct professor at New York University, contributing author to "Race, Education and Reintegrating Formerly Incarcerated Citizens," and founder of Educate Don’t Incarcerate, a program that assists the formerly incarcerated and youth with educational support and opportunities. He was named the the 2017 National Association of Social Workers Alex Rosen Student of the Year.