California Proposition 17: Voting Rights Restoration for Persons on Parole
Under current state law, people convicted of felonies may not vote until their imprisonment and parole are completed. California’s Proposition 17 (2020) would amend the state constitution to allow people convicted of felonies to vote once they have finished their imprisonment, even if they are still on parole.
The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates Prop. 17 would lead to a few hundred thousand dollars each year for the state to update voter registration cards and systems, and similar costs each year spread across all counties for registration and ballot materials. However, those costs would occur when people convicted of felonies finished their parole and Prop. 17 would move those costs forward a few years.
Proponents’ Argument For
Proponents argue that parole should not be punishment, but a way to integrate people back into society. Advocates say these parolees have are working, are counted in the Census, raising families, paying taxes, and should also be given the right to choose their representatives. Research shows that voters tend to have lower rates of recidivism than non-voters due to higher levels of community engagement. Nineteen other states and the District of Columbia already allow a person to vote after they are released from prison and still on parole. In addition, due to racial biases in the criminal justice system, Prop. 17 would help correct the disproportionate number of people of color who are prevented from voting.
Opponents’ Argument Against
Opponents argue that an offender’s liberties are restricted, from where they can live to what they are allowed to do because society has lost trust in that individual and therefore parolees should not be treated as full members of society with all the rights granted ordinary citizens until they’ve finished their sentence. Around half of all parolees commit new crimes within three years of their release, opponents argue. Nonviolent felons, such as car thieves and drug dealers, already have the right to vote while serving their parole, so this would only apply to those felons convicted of serious and violent crimes.
The Public Policy Institute of California estimates the number of parolees statewide as of December 2017 was about 46,000. The current number of total eligible voters in California as of October 2019, was around 25 million. All parolees would have to register to vote, and on average only 65 percent of eligible voters in California register to vote so, realistically, Prop. 17 would be expected to produce a small change in the state voting population.
Numerous other states have restored the voting rights of felons on parole, part of a trend toward criminal justice reforms and restoring voting rights as part of the rehabilitation process.
A disproportionate number of African Americans lose the right to vote and their communities are underrepresented in making electoral decisions. At the end of 2016 in California, African Americans made up 26 percent of parolees but only 6 percent of the state’s adult population (since then the state has refused to release data about race on an application for parole and grant or refusal of parole). “Black Americans of voting age are more than four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, with one of every 13 black adults disenfranchised nationally,” the Sentencing Project found.
If you view parole as a transition period where offenders who have served their prison sentences reenter society so they can rebuild a law-abiding life, then restoring voting rights could help connect parolees to their communities and be viewed as part of their rehabilitation. One study with a very small sample found that among former arrestees (not necessarily felonies), about 27 percent of the non-voters were rearrested while only 12 percent of those who voted were rearrested.