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New Law Restores Voting Rights To Thousands Of Californians In County Jails

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On Wednesday, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will allow tens of thousands of felons in county jails to vote in California elections, strengthening their ties to society and aiding transition efforts. In a year when voting rights have been very much at stake, Brown's decision to sign AB 2466 into law is an important one.

Felony disenfranchisement, or laws that strip individuals of their right to vote because of a criminal conviction, not only have an extremely disproportionate effect on communities of color, but the history of their implementation was often directly tied to keeping black and brown voters away from the polls (e.g. felony disenfranchisement in the post-Reconstruction South, where several states tailored their policies to specifically target crimes they felt were most likely to be committed by the black population). Even if the reasoning behind felony disenfranchisement practices are no longer explicitly racist, it would be difficult to argue about the racially disparate nature of their effects. Here in California, three out of every four men in prison are African American, Latino or Asian American.

That said, California has been relatively progressive on the issue of felony disenfranchisement, at least compared to the rest of the nation (we live in a country with eleven states that bar someone who has been convicted of a felony from voting for life). In 1976, our state's constitution was amended to end permanent disenfranchisement, and to clarify that only people who were currently "imprisoned" or on parole for the conviction of a felony could be prohibited from voting.

But in 2011, the Criminal Justice Realignment Act of 2011 (commonly known as "realignment") created three new categories of sentencing for people convicted of low-level felonies in California. Those new categories created widespread confusion among local election officials and voters about who exactly still had the right to vote. The results of an ACLU court case later clarified that people sentenced in two of those three categories (mandatory supervision and post-release community supervision) were qualified to vote, but it remained unclear whether those who fell into the third category (serving a term in a county jail for a low-level felony conviction). After three-and-a-half decades of clear-cut rules on felony disenfranchisement, things were suddenly much more confusing in post-realignment California. Even worse, the rules of who could and couldn't vote were being applied differently from county to county.

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AB 2466 enshrines the results of Scott v. Bowen (the aforementioned ACLU-led court case) into law, and restores voting rights to members of that third category, who are serving time in county jails for non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent offenses. To be clear, this isn't handing a ballot to rapists and murderers, despite what your cranky uncle might be posting on Facebook right now (see that last sentence about three "nons"). AB 2466 is, more than anything, a clarification of voter eligibility, albeit one that will restore voting rights to tens of thousands of people.

"I wrote AB 2466 because I want to send a message to the nation that California will not stand for discrimination in voting," the bill's author, Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, said in a statement, explaining that many Californians don't understand the racially disparate impacts of felony voting laws.

The law, which will take effect on January 1, was not without opposition, particularly from law enforcement groups. The L.A. Times reports that California State Sheriffs’ Association and the California Police Chiefs Association opposed it, and that Sen. Patricia Bates of Laguna called it a "really bad bill." According to Bates, the new law will undermine the integrity of elections, because people in jail [serving time for non-serious, non-sexual and non-violent offenses] might be able to influence the result of a close contest. Totally makes sense.

Daniel Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, saw it a little differently, telling the Times that "California is stronger and healthier when more people participate in the electoral process."

"[Because of AB 2466], we'll have a more inclusive, participatory electorate," Nancy Berlin, policy director for the California Association of Nonprofits, told LAist. "And in this case, these are individuals who had their sentences changed because of realignment and really do meet all the requirements for voting. There isn't any reason to exclude them."

Lami Glenn, a formerly incarcerated individual who cannot currently vote because he is on parole, told LAist about the frustration of felony disenfranchisement. "The fact that I can't vote, it's not a good feeling," he said. "It's like I'm technically not a citizen." Glenn, who works at Homeboy Industries, told LAist that he encourages friends and family from his South L.A. community to vote so their voices can be heard.

"When we exclude the very people who are trying to get their lives back on track, they have a harder time integrating back into their communities. We want them to feel like they can fully participate, because that's what keeps them involved in their communities, and really keeps them from going back into jail... It's that participatory process that really helps people recover and do better," Berlin said.

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