HOLSTON: Ensuring the right to vote

I’d like to think I’ve voted in every national election since 2000, though technically those were my father’s votes and I merely pressed the button. Each time, as I prepared to fill out his ballot, I relished the idea that politicians had to pay attention to our concerns, because the key to their jobs was in the power of my finger. From an early age, I understood that voting was a right that my ancestors were steadily denied for decades. Their past struggles and successes pulsate through me when I step into the voting booth.

My views on voting have evolved over time. Our system of democratic representation is far from perfect. Though we remain a one-man, one-vote society, those with money and influence drown out the voices of the many. The two-party system is deeply flawed. While many Yalies are incredibly engaged in the political process, there are some who do not wish to seem complicit in a system they do not fully support. These are important issues to consider and reform, but abstaining doesn’t address another issue of representation that is often neglected.

Because we have always had the privilege of voting, we don’t understand what a privilege that truly is. Many Americans are still systematically denied the right to vote, even though they would vote if able. Because of this, I don’t believe Yale students have an excuse to stand outside of politics and polling places. It’s unfair choose to sit out while so many wish to stand in your place.

According to estimates from The Sentencing Project, a national research and advocacy organization, over 5.8 million people have lost the right to vote as the result of a prior felony conviction. More than 1 in 13 African-Americans are disenfranchised because of restrictions barring those with a criminal record from voting.

While only five states permanently disbar persons with felony convictions from the right to vote, many people in other states are not aware that their right to vote is ever restored. In Connecticut, the current law states that those with felony convictions may vote after they complete their sentence-prison time and parole. Those only sentenced to probation, those convicted of misdemeanors and those awaiting trial in jail do not lose their right to vote — but many believe they do.

For the past several months, I have participated in voter registration drives targeting those with prior convictions. On several occasions, men and women have come up to me and timidly asked, “Are you sure I can vote?”

As I informed them they retained their right, some remained unsure. This is because officials who do not know the correct laws have told them misinformation. I too have heard incorrect facts on the right to vote from correctional officers and even U.S. congressmen.

The disenfranchisement of people with convictions has not garnered enough attention. The idea that this demographic is not civically engaged, or doesn’t care about their right to vote, is a false one. I’ve had several productive conversations with those I’ve registered through the program about current events, politics and the presidential debates. And with huge numbers of people returning home from prison, the re-entry population has the potential to become a powerful and consistent voting block.

Our system of representation has many flaws, and many will still choose not to vote in order to protest them. That’s okay, but please consider this before you decide to abstain. If we are truly serious about reintegrating those with convictions back into society, we have failed if one of the most important tools of civic engagement is denied. If Yalies are serious about taking a stand against systems of oppression in this country, they should be in the voting booth on Nov. 6 to stand in solidarity with disenfranchised voters.

Nia Holston is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at nia.holston@yale.edu.

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