Reading the Props: Does 17 Go Far Enough?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Every two years, I read the full text of all statewide ballot propositions—because at least one Californian should.

Next is Prop 17.

If California is a leader in democracy, does Prop 17 go far enough? 

Prop 17 is a proposed constitutional amendment from the legislature, and it is simple in its text. It makes two small edits in two different sections of the California constitution to permit parolees to vote.

Right now, California allows felons to vote only after they have completed both prison and parole. We are only one of three states that handles the franchise for felons this way. Prop 17 would eliminate the completion of parole as a requirement—you would only have to complete your prison term. 

California’s leaders have portrayed themselves as advocates for democracy and suffrage. In this, California is only catching up with 19 states who allow parolees to vote. But California will still trail Maine and Vermont, the two states that allow people to vote while imprisoned.

I would suggest the case for letting prisoners vote is pretty strong. Indeed, the prisons—along with our public universities—are our most important state institutions. And people who spend time in state prisons quite naturally end up having to know much more about the state, and how it works. (They often share their insights in letters to this columnist). 

You may disagree. But Prop 17 is a measure that allows California to catch up a bit on voting rights, though the state would still be short of leadership.

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