This week, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla reversed a state policy that disenfranchised residents who had completed their prison time, but remained under community supervision. The move is expected to allow nearly 60,000 Californians to have their voting rights restored.
As the state continues to try to chip away at its unconstitutionally large prison population through early release programs, far more could benefit from the policy in years to come.
“There is strong evidence that reintegrating former inmates back into society by helping them find jobs and housing gives them better chance of not re-offending,and I think voting is a key part of that,” Padilla told ThinkProgress. “It’s giving people a voice in their communities. For me, it’s equal parts the right thing to do from a voting rights and a public safety perspective.”
Besides reversing the state’s policy, Padilla settled with voting rights groups that challenged the law to the tune of $215,000. The new policy comes as California tries to tackle its dismally low election participation — currently one of the worst in the country. Just over 42 percent of eligible voters turning out in last fall’s election. In Los Angeles County, just 31 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.
Those who do vote tend to be much higher income, older and whiter than the state’s population. Latinos, who recently surpassed Caucasians to become the largest demographic in the state, have the lowest participation rate of 28 percent.
The Golden State is weighing several other ways to address this disparity, including implementing same-day registration — which studies show boosts voter turnout by 12 percent. Other legislation currently in the works would allow mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to count, meaning votes could continue to trickle in up to the weekend after the election. Another bill introduced last month would allow the state to put electronic signs on highways — where Californians spend a great deal of time — reminding people to register and vote.
“We know we have a lot of work to do on the strength of our democracy,” said Padilla. “We need to focus on the whole pipeline: both getting more currently registered people to cast ballots, and getting more eligible Californians on the voter rolls. I look at what’s happening in other states in terms of restricting voting rights — in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Florida — and I’m proud that California can serve as a counterexample.”
Possibly the biggest step California could take in expanding voter access is a bill Padilla backs that would automatically register residents to vote using DMV records. The State Assembly already passed the bill, and Padilla said he hopes the State Senate acts on it when they return to work in two weeks.
As Maryland and other states attempt to follow California’s lead, some members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are calling for a national law to restore ex-offender voting rights, which could give more than 4 million former prisoners a voice.
Today, in the states that most restrict those with criminal records from casting a ballot, the racial disparities are staggering. According to the Sentencing Project, black disenfranchisement rate tops 20 percent in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, and reaches double digits in many other states.