Proposition 17 and a Case of Good Timing

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

One ballot measure expected to get little notice this election season is Proposition 17, granting voting rights to parolees. Yet, because of the increased focus on judicial reform spurred by the protests following George Floyd’s killing, Prop 17 will be wrapped within, and benefit from, the justice reform movement.

The California Constitution prohibits felons serving time and those on parole from exercising their voting franchise. A few years ago, an activist group hoped to change the constitution via a ballot initiative to grant voting rights to felons and parolees. The measure did not qualify for the ballot. The legislature, behind Assembly Member Kevin McCarty, decided to put forth a compromise version that would still prohibit jailed felons from voting but allow those on parole to vote.

The California ballot measure is predicated on the idea that if a felon had served time and paid their debt to society, they should be fully integrated back into society.

The proposal didn’t receive unanimous support on its way to the ballot. Support generally broke down along liberal-conservative lines. 

Proponent Kevin McCarty said the measure was needed because, “In order to fully reintegrate folks returning to our communities, we must restore their right to vote. This is not a partisan issue but rather an issue of having a just and inclusive democracy in this state. “ In opposition, Senator Jim Nielsen said, “For those that commit the crimes, particularly the heinous crimes, part of their sentence is to complete the parole period.” 

In the shadow of the police/judicial reform movement, two-thirds of each house supported the plan and placed it on the November ballot. As true with many aspects of life, timing is everything.

The issue of felons or parolees voting is treated differently across the nation. There are two states (Maine and Vermont) that allow felons to vote even when serving their sentences; three states that never return voting rights to felons or former felons (Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia); and the other states with varying requirements for felons and rehabilitated felons to vote.

Buttressing the ideological divide, the constitutional amendment legislation was supported by approximately 200 liberal or progressive groups. But now that efforts at racial and justice reforms have come to the fore, others are taking a more positive view to the change. 

This week, the United States Chamber of Commerce issued “The Equality of Opportunity Agenda.” In the section “Addressing Inequality in Criminal Justice,” the Chamber cited under Restoring Voting Rights, “Once individuals have completed their sentences they should be eligible to fully participate in the American democratic process.” It was unclear whether the completion of sentence included the parole period, but the fact that it was included at all and that the agenda itself was created, is an indication that the racial and justice issues of the moment are gaining traction.

While Proposition 17 will never be among the most talked about November ballot initiatives, its chances of success on Election Day have been enhanced by outside circumstances.

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