In 2006, Rhode Island issued a public referendum that restored the right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals. Both the Department of Corrections and the Secretary of State have new roles and responsibilities to not only ensure that ex-felons are aware of their restored right, but to also provide them with resources for registration. As a result of this referendum, Rhode Island joins 13 other states that allow some degree of the prison community to vote.
And yet, that’s still not enough.
Just because ex-felons are allowed to vote does not necessarily mean that they DO vote. For the 2008 election, the Family Life Center in Rhode Island conducted a survey to see how many re-enfranchised individuals actually voted. Their findings were disheartening. Of the 17,606 individuals whose suffrage rights were restored, only 6,330 registered in time to vote. That’s 36% — much less than half of that population. But it gets worse. Of those 6,330 registered voters, only 3,001 (47%) of them actually voted in one or more of the three statewide elections that year. To put this in perspective, only 3001 of the 17,606 who were re-enfranchised voted; that’s only 17%, meaning Less than a quarter of ex-felons voted in 2008.
The Quarterly Journal of Political Science presents various explanations for low voter turnout among the re-enfranchised ex-felon population. There is always the argument of time; they simply could not register in time for the elections. In addition, ex-felons may have much more difficulty registering to vote. They also may be misinformed about their rights to vote as well. But there is something more pressing: according to the Journal, there was “less GOTV(get-out-the-vote) activity” within Rhode Island, along with Maine (77). In other words, not many candidates made significant efforts targeted at ex-felons to get them to the polls. And that is problematic, not just because of the low voter turnout, but because their voices are being silenced.
Candidates of Rhode Island, whichever race you are running, please do not forget ex-felons. Whether you agree with ex-felons having the right to vote or not (and that is another conversation), the law is clear. Once out of prison, they can vote, and therefore, their ballots matter just as much as non-felons. Just as you phone bank, knock on doors, and hold events for those who don’t even have a speeding ticket, you need to ensure that ex-felons can also exercise their right to vote.
Yes, that means interacting with them and listening to their problems and issues, their stories and dreams. That means going to the Department of Corrections and ensuring that they know their rights and even helping them register. That means ensuring that there are no other barriers blocking them from voting. And yes, that means you have to persuade them to vote. But your constituency is no longer limited to the non-felons; it has become bigger and broader. And when an ex-felon does not vote because no one reached out to them, that unfortunately means that you deemed their voice to be less important.
So word of advice: do not forget the ex-felons. Their vote matters because their voice matters. They were once silent, but now they can speak once again. Make sure that they are heard. Make sure that they are able to exercise their right to vote.