Ex-offenders register with Unlock the Vote

With the U.S. presidential election approaching in November, a new voter registration program in New Haven is seeking to address misconceptions about ex-offenders’ right to cast a ballot.

On Tuesday, Unlock the Vote launched its first registration drive at the Project Model Offender Reintegration Experience headquarters on Grand Avenue to reach out to potential voters with a history of incarceration. The campaign, established under the umbrella of the New Haven Prison Re-entry Initiative, seeks to inform legal service providers and potential voters about state voting rights laws.

In Connecticut, persons with past convictions are eligible to vote provided they have completed their sentences and parole, and have not been convicted of voter fraud. Tuesday’s drive registered over 30 first-time voters, most of whom did not know they could vote, said Nia Holsten ’14, the political action chair for the Black Student Alliance and co-chair of the Ward 1 Democratic Committee.

“There is a whole population out there who aren’t aware about their constitutional rights,” said Melissa Lavoie ’12, an intern at the New Haven Prison Re-entry Initiative who has worked extensively on the project. Holsten brought the concept to Lavoie after spending a year working in New York City on voter registration projects, Holsten said.

Holsten said the program in New York conducted surveys and found that most people with former convictions had been misinformed about their right to vote. Much of the confusion, Lavoie said, stems from lack of consistency in voter rights laws for ex-offenders across states and the recent changes to many of these laws.

Lavoie said that Unlock the Vote has been under development since July. The program conducted surveys, held two focus groups and brought the proposal in front of the New Haven Prison Re-entry Round Table before its official launch on Tuesday, she added.

“There is this conception out there that people with criminal records are not interested in getting involved in the political process, and that’s just not true,” Lavoie said.

Unlock the Vote also provides information to legal service providers, parole officers, and voter registration programs to make them aware of ex-offenders’ rights, Holsten said. Lavoie said she recently met someone from the local corrections department who did not know the voting laws for persons with a history of incarceration.

Holsten said that the ability to vote has an effect on how engaged ex-offenders feel with the government, which is important to their reintegration into society. This particular demographic has often been forgotten in registration efforts, she added.

“Unfortunately, a lot of politicians don’t necessarily see this as a strong potential voting block,” Holsten said, adding that even the huge registration drives behind the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign ignored the demographic.

“[People with a history of incarceration] have paid their debt to society. Now they should be able to exercise their freedoms,” said Kelly Rader, assistant professor of political science, adding that registering people with former convictions is important because it is “a restoration of full citizenship.”

The program plans to hold more drives ahead of the election, with its next event planned for Wednesday, Oct. 3 at the New Haven Adult Education office on Ella T. Grasso Boulevard.

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