California Initiatives Could Expand Voting Rights for Parolees and 17-Year-Olds

Isabelle Franz of Brea in Southern California poses with her “I Voted” sticker outside the Brea Community Center in Southern California. (Courthouse News photo / Nathan Solis)

(CN) — Californians will decide the fate of two ballot measures this November that could significantly expand voting rights for some 50,000 parolees and hundreds of thousands of 17-year-olds.

Supporters say the proposals will increase participation in elections and help strengthen democracy. Opponents say they will give undeserving people too much power to sway elections in the Golden State.

Proposition 17 would restore voting rights to felons released on parole from state prison.

Proposition 18 would let 17-year-olds vote in primary and preliminary contests if they will turn 18 by the day of the general election for those races.

Each proposal is expected to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in one-time and recurring voter registration costs for counties across the state.

For Dorsey Nunn, a black man and former inmate who now serves as executive director of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the push to restore voting rights to parolees is personal. He sees the voting restrictions as a vestige of post-Civil War efforts to deny people of color the right to vote.

“Let’s stop playing with people and saying it’s part of punishment, instead of saying it’s part of a strategy that came out of Reconstruction to deny people the right to vote and hold political office,” Nunn said in a phone interview.

Supporters of Proposition 17 say parolees deserve the right to vote because they have served their time in prison and paid their debt to society. Opponents say a one- to three-year parole term is part of the criminal sentence. Successfully completing parole helps demonstrate that someone has been fully rehabilitated, they argue.

“We believe people should complete their prison sentence, reintegrate in society and as they do it, they get their rights restored,” said Nina Salarno, president of Crime Victims United California, which opposes Proposition 17.

Noting that about 50% of felons commit crimes within three years of being released from California state prison, Salarno says that figure underscores her argument that many parolees are not fully rehabilitated.

Carol Moon Goldberg, president of the League of Women Voters California, says that doesn’t mean the other 50% of people who don’t commit crimes while on parole should be disenfranchised. It’s akin to punishing someone for the bad behavior of others, she said.

Because many parolees hold jobs, raise families and pay taxes, they should have a say in how their tax money is spent and how their government is run, Goldberg argued.

“Government decisions impact their lives just like they do everyone else’s lives, and they should be allowed to have their voices heard through voting,” Goldberg said.

Supporters also point to research showing that ex-prisoners in states where felons are permanently disenfranchised are more likely to re-offend compared to those who eventually get their voting rights restored. 

Proposition 17 proponents say giving people the right to vote strengthens ties to the community and reduces the likelihood that someone will re-offend. They also point to other research showing that civic engagement is linked to lower rates of recidivism.

But Salarno said crime victims don’t want people convicted of acts as serious as rape or murder to start voting before they have proven they can live in society without re-offending. For Salarno, that proof is established when someone completes parole.

“The day you come out the door of a prison you don’t have a stake in the community yet, because you’re not reintegrated yet,” Salarno said.

Proposition 18

Supporters of Proposition 18 say it makes sense that if someone will vote in the general election, they should have a say on which candidates will appear on the ballot in that election.

“If these students are allowed to vote in November, why should they not have a voice to decide who’s going to be on that ballot,” said Goldberg, of the League of Women Voters California, which also supports Proposition 18.

Opponents say 17-year-olds lack the full brain development and life experience that is vital for making informed decisions. Most have not had to work to support themselves, and their votes could tip the scale in close contests that might saddle property owners and residents with burdensome new taxes, opponents argue.

Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow people under 18 to vote in primary elections, but Susan Shelley of the anti-tax group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association says unlike California, most of those states don’t vote on tax proposals in primary races.

“This measure would allow 17-year-olds who are still in high school to vote on tax increases, bond measures and similar proposals on primary and special election ballots, and we think that’s not wise,” Shelley said in a phone interview.

Countering that argument, Goldberg notes that young people pay sales taxes and many work part-time jobs. People can start working in California at age 14.

Proponents say Proposition 18 will boost youth participation in elections and help engrain lifelong voting habits in young people that could increase voter turnout for decades to come.

Still, opponents argue that 17-year-olds are too impressionable and could be subject to undue influence by schools and teachers, especially on proposals that seek to raise taxes for public education.

“High school students could be voting in the classroom if voting by mail under the watchful eyes of their teacher and under a bunch of banners that are informational about tax increases that schools are in favor of,” Shelley said.

People under 18 can’t sign contracts or go on a field trip without parental permission so why should they be trusted with the power to impose higher taxes on Californians with their votes, Shelley argued.

Adopting that same reasoning, Goldberg questioned if it’s fair that a 60-year-old can shape policy on issues such as climate change by voting — an issue that will affect young people for the rest of their lives.

“I am 60 years old, and the decisions being made today will affect me if I’m lucky for the next 30 years,” Goldberg said. “The decisions being made today will affect them for 70 or 80 years.”

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