Marilyn Reyes-Scales, 53, remembers family time in her parents’ living room as a small child, when her aunt and uncles sat with her parents, discussing the views of political candidates and debating each one’s merits. Her parents had moved from Puerto Rico to New York for the opportunity to have a better life, and they took voting seriously.
She laughs, remembering how hard it was to sit still in one place while her parents lined up at the polls, and how heated those family conversations got. When she was old enough she joined her parents, viewing voting as both her right and her responsibility.
“It made me feel like an adult,” she said. “I felt like I was doing an adult thing.”
She stopped voting when she got involved with drugs, and in her early 30s, Reyes-Scales was convicted of a felony and incarcerated. When she got out, she knew she wanted to live a different life.
Part of that meant having a say in the leadership of her community and country—by voting.
At first she couldn’t register, since she was on parole. Even when her parole was completed, she says she was told by election officials that her criminal history barred her from the ballot box and she had multiple registration applications denied—a problem that experts call “defacto disenfranchisement,” meaning that people don’t vote because they are misinformed about their rights.
“I was discouraged,” she said. “I felt less worthy. I felt that because of my past, now I can’t get my life back.”
Though New York is often thought of as a bastion of progressive thinking and policies, in the juvenile justice sphere. the state is middle-of-the-road in many ways.
New York tries 16- and 17-year-olds as adults, meaning that juveniles can lose the right to vote before they’ve even gained it. Activists see this as one of several ways in which youth are affected by felony disenfranchisement, and are fighting for more progressive legislation.
“By restoring the right to vote, men and women are going to be able to get re-engaged in their communities,” said Brandon Holmes, a civil rights organizer at VOCAL-NY, an organization focused on empowering marginalized communities and ending mass incarceration.
Reyes-Scales was determined to overcome the barriers that prevented her from reclaiming her rights as a citizen. She stopped using drugs and tried hard to find work and to reintegrate into her community.
“I wanted to do something different this time, I didn’t want to fall back,” she said. “I kept fighting.
By becoming educated about her rights and continuing to try to register to vote, she was able to live a new life after her incarceration and parole ended.
“I got my voting rights; I helped pass the Fair Chance Act in NYC; I’ve become active in my community.”
Editor’s note: The Fair Chance Act makes it illegal for New York employers to ask about the criminal record of job applicants before making a job offer.
Shortly after slavery was abolished in 1865, a move that theoretically allowed African-American men to begin to gain voting rights, a slew of new laws across the country disenfranchised those with criminal convictions.
That legacy still disproportionately affects thousands of African Americans. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, one out of every 24 black voters in New York have had their voting rights restricted, compared to one out of every 121 voters in the state. African Americans are 65 percent of the disenfranchised population, even though they make up only 13 percent of New York’s population of those old enough to vote.
“There’s a real tie between the origins of these laws and the effort to keep African Americans out of the ballot,” said Tomas Lopez, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Across the country, voting rights for those who have been convicted of felonies are a patchwork, with some states taking rights away for life, and others allowing even those in prison to vote. New York state rests in the middle: While incarcerated and on parole, citizens are not allowed to vote, but once the sentence is completed, including for those on probation, rights are restored.
Akiel Williams, 25, was incarcerated as an 18-year-old, and released at 24 with a five-year parole. More fortunate than many others in similar situations, he lives with his parents who bought a house in a new neighborhood, removing him from a group of people who had negatively influenced him.
Nevertheless, adjusting to life outside of prison was a struggle. He eventually landed a job as a janitor (“It’s not my dream job, but it’s a start,” he said).
For ex-inmates like Williams, voting can be a way of restoring their sense of self-worth as citizens. It’s a form of empowerment that allows them a voice in what happens within their community.
“I would like my vote to count; I would like everybody’s vote to count,” Williams said. “I don’t think you should be limited because you had a felony.”
Most specialists and researchers in re-entry agree that taking advantages of opportunities for civic engagement—such as voting—is an essential factor in helping to reduce recidivism.
Reyes-Scales put it bluntly.
“When I go and vote I feel like I’m going to be part of something,” she said. “You’re doing something that’s for the good of the community. You’re exercising your rights.”
VOCAL-NY is on the steering committee of a campaign called Restore the Vote New York, which is working to expand the voting rights of those who have criminal histories, including giving anyone who is back in the community the right to vote.
One of their goals is making it mandatory for ex-inmates to register to vote after they have completed all the components of their sentences. Holmes of VOCAL-NY says that not only is this an essential part of allowing people to rehabilitate and live successfully, but that it is also important to the larger community.
“It would be tremendous for public safety, he said. “The research says that restoring the right to vote can lower recidivism rates — that right there means less crime.”
Encouraging a culture of voting
For Reyes-Scales, the idea of voting was ingrained because her parents had voted throughout her childhood. So it was natural for her to register as soon as she could — both for the first time as an 18-year-old, and again once she had her rights restored. Today she has six children, five of whom are old enough to vote.
Though she has talked to them about the importance of civic engagement, none of them vote.
Experts say voting is a learned behavior, and that children who grow up in communities where voting is valued are more likely to vote themselves. Even though Reyes-Scales talks to her children, the early messages that they got when their mother wasn’t able to register may have impacted them, the so-called “collateral damage” of having parents and community members who have lost rights.
Holmes has experienced this first-hand.
“My father is formerly incarcerated, and if I had grown up in a different neighborhood under different circumstances I never would have voted because I’d have thought ‘Oh, my voice doesn’t matter,’” he said.
Beyond the message that this sends to parents and how that affects their children, the lack of voting rights has a major impact on the communities that have the highest number of justice-involved individuals.
“It affects communities as a whole, as we know the youth are the backbone of our communities and it’s stripping that political power away from their parents,” Holmes said. “The men or women come back to those communities and those are votes that the community does not get back.”
‘You’ll never get to vote’
Even for those who do have the vote, there is often confusion.
As a 17-year-old, Andre Centeno, now 55, was convicted of a felony and incarcerated. He stayed in prison until he was 33, and then spent another 16 years on parole. He hadn’t even gained the right to vote before it was taken away from him, and he remembers hearing from prison guards that his voice was worthless.
“It’s sort of like an indoctrination once you go in. They tell you once you’re convicted of a felony you’ll never get to vote,” he said.
“Because the last 10, 15, 20 years all you’ve heard was ‘You won’t be able to vote, you won’t be able to vote,’ now that you have the actual opportunity to vote, you don’t see the value in it.”
While Andre was incarcerated he began a college education, and now holds a master’s degree. He credits this education for a lot of his knowledge. He learned along the way that what the guards had told him was untrue; but he’s talked to others through his work who have gone years without knowing their rights.
“You see guys sitting there mesmerized, like ‘I wish I would have known this 20 years ago,’” he said.
In a study done by the American Civil Liberties Union and Brennan Center for Justice, election officials were questioned about the rights of voters who had completed their sentences, and overwhelmingly responded with misinformation.
There was confusion over the difference between parole and probation, over how misdemeanors affected voting rights (usually, not at all) and about basic registration procedures. All this has a direct impact on potential voters, who often have limited access to information and won’t return again.
Williams, the 25-year-old who works as a janitor, explained that even when he finished parole he still wouldn’t have the right to vote, due to his previous conviction, information he’d heard from a number of people, passed to him as common knowledge.
When I told him that, in fact, he can vote in four years, when he finishes probation, his tone shifted.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “You gave me hope.”
Gwenn McClure is a reporter with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE). This story is being published in partnership with the JJIE. Readers’ comments are welcome.