Voting Rights for People on Parole
Restores voting rights upon completion of prison terms
Grants people on parole in California the right to vote.
What the Measure Would Do
The California Constitution denies the right to vote to people serving a prison sentence and to people on parole. Proposition 17 would remove the restriction for people on parole, restoring voting rights upon completion of their prison term. If the measure passes, the right to vote would be restored to approximately 50,000 Californians.
Voting rights for incarcerated and previously incarcerated people differ widely across the United States. In Vermont and Maine, for example, those serving a prison term never lose the right to vote; they are able to register and cast a vote while in prison. On the other end of the spectrum are 10 states in which some people convicted of felonies can permanently lose their right to vote.1 In 21 states, including California, individuals lose their right to vote while in prison and while participating in supervision programs such as parole and/or probation. If Prop. 17 passes, California would become one of 18 states that restores voting rights upon release from prison.
Over the past half-century, California has slowly reinstated the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people. In 1974, California passed Proposition 10, which restored voting rights to people once they’d completed their prison term and parole. Prior to this amendment, the California Constitution denied voting rights indefinitely for some people convicted of high crimes and infamous crimes. The passage of the Criminal Justice Realignment Act in California in 2011, as well as subsequent legislation and court cases, solidified the right to vote for people who are in county jail, on probation or on post-release community supervision — however, disenfranchisement for people on parole remained intact.2 The murky distinctions around who does and does not have the right to vote results in “de facto disenfranchisement,” where eligible voters are unsure if they have the right to vote.
In California, a person finishes their prison sentence the day they are released from prison; parole is not an extension of a prison sentence, and in concept, it is not intended to be punitive. Individuals on parole receive some supervision for a set amount of time (typically two to five years) post-release. One of the central goals of the parole program is to reduce recidivism by providing rehabilitative services, such as employment and housing assistance. Efforts to restore voting rights to people on parole often highlight the disconnect between the purpose of parole and the punitive nature of denying the right to vote. Advocates point out that barring people on parole from voting limits their ability to reintegrate and reinvest in their community; in fact, recent studies have found that voting is correlated with lower rates of recidivism.3
Prop. 17 was approved by two-thirds of the membership of each house in the state legislature and must be placed on the ballot because it amends the state constitution. As a constitutional amendment, it requires a simple majority (50% plus one vote) to pass.
Voter disenfranchisement is a form of systematic oppression that has existed in the United States since its founding. Denying voting rights to people on parole is one such manifestation, disproportionately blocking people of color from participating in our democracy and thereby limiting their political power. In 2016, Black people made up 26% of parolees in California but only constituted 6% of California’s adult population. For Latinos, the impact of incarceration and disenfranchisement has also been disproportionate.4
In the United States, one out of 13 Black men of voting age is denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction. In states with more restrictive laws around voting, the rate is 1 in 5. Restoring the right to vote to people on parole would be a step toward equity by re-enfranchising approximately 50,000 Californians, about 75% of whom are people of color. 5
- Granting people on parole the right to vote would make our democracy fairer and more inclusive, helping to ensure that our leaders represent a wider share of the state’s people.
- Studies have shown that voting is linked to lower rates of recidivism: When people are treated as valued members of a community and allowed to be civically engaged, they are less likely to re-engage in criminal activity.6
- People on parole work and live in California’s communities and are in the process of full reintegration into society. They should have the right to vote on the issues that impact them.
- SPUR could not identify any downsides for Prop. 17.
There is no more basic right in a democracy than the right to vote. Voter disenfranchisement is antithetical to the political structures of our nation and to the values of equality and justice we espouse. Barring people on parole from the right to vote is a clear example of the disconnect between our declared values and our actions, especially since people of color are disproportionately disenfranchised. Additionally, we believe that a responsive and effective government requires a high level of citizen involvement and that involvement in civic life helps reduce recidivism. Prop. 17 would open participation in public decisions to approximately 50,000 citizens who have every right to participate in their democracy.
1. Internationally, there is no other democracy in which people convicted of felonies can become disenfranchised for life, and numerous countries permit people to vote while in prison.
2. Probation is a period of supervision for an offender, ordered by the court instead of a prison sentence. “Post-release community supervision” is the new term for parole for those who served time in a county jail. Parole is a supervised program for inmates re-entering the community after being released from prison.
3. Erika Wood, “Restoring the Right to Vote,” Brennan Center for Justice, 2009, https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/2019-08/Report_Restoring-the-Right-to-Vote.pdf
4. Public Policy Institute of California, “California’s Changing Parole Population,” https://www.ppic.org/publication/californias-changing-parole-population/#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20parolees%20who,%E2%80%948.6%25%20of%20the%20population.
6. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample, July 11, 2003, http://users.cla.umn.edu/~uggen/Preview.pdf