Elis help ex-inmates vote

A campus political action group is working with local nonprofits to let ex-inmates know that they have a right to vote.

As part of its newly conceived New Haven Re-Enfranchisement Project, New Haven Action is training groups to re-register former prisoners, as well as ex-inmates who have never voted, and increase awareness about state laws governing inmate rights. Though Connecticut state law allows prisoners to vote once they are released from jail, NHA Director Katherine Zhang ’08 said, many ex-prisoners are unaware of the law.

“A lot of people don’t know, and if they had registered before [they went to prison] they have almost certainly gotten taken off the [voter] rolls,” she said. “This started as a campaign to inform disenfranchised voters of their rights.”

NHA member Amy Rothschild ’09 said that of the 35,000 ex-inmates who are currently living in Connecticut, very few are aware of their voting rights.

The training model NHA is using to target ex-inmates was developed by Democracy Works Connecticut, a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving civic participation of the disenfranchised and underrepresented. The ultimate goal of the project is to build a sustainable community of organizations committed to registering ex-inmates, said Serena Retna ’07, a member of NHA.

“This is about a responsibility to the community as well as to community-building,” she said.

The NHA is looking to collaborate with groups that work with ex-inmates, Retna said, such as homeless shelters, halfway houses and various nonprofit organizations. On March 2, NHA will hold workshops to train staff members from these citywide community groups in how to run a registration campaign.

By the end of the workshops, Retna said, she hopes the groups will commit to have registration drives specifically catered to former prisoners, many of whom live in the city. New Haven is one of three cities in the state where most ex-inmates reside after their release, she said.

Zhang said prisoners are given a packet of materials and relevant paperwork when they are released from prison but that voter registration cards are not included. Including these cards could be a simple way the government could increase awareness of voting rights, she said, despite the cost of the change.

Prisoners’ voting rights vary across the country. Some states, including Connecticut, allow felons to vote after they have completed their sentence, while others ban felons from ever voting.

Zhang, who said she believes all states should give ex-inmates the right to vote, said patterns in inmate disenfranchisement reflect underlying racial and economic disparities in America.

“There is a socioeconomic and racial class of people who end up in jail,” she said. “It’s mostly African Americans and low-income people, and they are usually disenfranchised anyway because of a lack of resources.”

Although ideally the government would automatically update its voter rolls to include former prisoners, Rothschild said, NHA is trying to push for change with a bottom-up strategy.

“We’ve chosen to take a more grassroots approach for people who don’t necessarily vote, who aren’t the most vocal constituency,” she said.

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