Prisoners and their voting rights

1966 was a very confusing time for the civic-minded ex-burglar

When was the last time you saw a candidate detour the campaign bus to Folsom or Chino?
  • When was the last time you saw a candidate detour the campaign bus to Folsom or Chino?
  • Image by Rick Geary

Being that next year is an election year, I ponder this question to you: Can convicts vote? — N. Carcerated, Vista

Being that I need to ponder your grammar, why don’t you ponder this one. When was the last time you saw a candidate detour the campaign bus to Folsom or Chino to stump for that all-important felon vote? On election day, nobody in a federal or state lockup in California will be fretting about what time the polls close. Convicted felons lose lots of rights and privileges, including the right to vote, until they’ve served their prison time and successfully completed their parole.

Until 1966, if you robbed a bank, let’s say, or rustled some cattle (were convicted of an “infamous crime,” in the words of the state constitution), California told you to take your ballot and stuff it. You’d never vote again. You were thought to be “a threat to the integrity of the elective process.” Personally, I worry more about guys like Ollie North than the average pickpocket, but we saw things differently back in ’66. A successful court challenge to the constitutional prohibition set off ten years of legislative paper-shuffling, judicial decisions, and ballot propositions. A very confusing time for the civic-minded ex-burglar. In 1976 we finally decided that only convicted felons still imprisoned or on parole could be barred from voting. (Strange, because you won’t find that wording in the Election Code itself. But if you try to register by mail from Soledad or your first stop out of the gate is the registrar’s office, you can’t truthfully sign the voter registration form, which requires you to swear you’re not imprisoned or on parole. That’s perjury, and you’ll be back behind bars again.) If you’re convicted of a violation of the state Election Code, you forever lose the right to vote, no matter how long you’ve been off parole.

But let’s say our friend N. Carcerated, legally registered to vote and unsullied by a felony conviction, is late to remedial English class one day. He spots a nice little Mustang at the curb and figures that’s the solution to his problem. The cops put the arm on him and take him downtown for booking. Soon enough he’s sitting in the fish tank with the rest of the day’s catch, eating dinner off a plastic tray, and calling collect to all his relatives to snivel about raising bail. If none of the Carcerateds can come up with the dough, can N. legally cast a ballot? If on election day he’s not yet been convicted of appropriating the Mustang, he certainly can. Being charged with a crime isn’t a crime. Innocent until proved guilty and all that. So certain county jail residents would be eligible to vote. But, as you might imagine, it’s not a high priority. One M.A. pal, a former sheriff s deputy, says that in six years of duty in county lockups, no one ever asked for an absentee ballot.

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