January 26, 2022

Advocates hopeful voting rights legislation will help break down barriers for the formerly incarcerated

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Justin Allen, a community organizer, was eligible to vote in 2017 but he could not register until his third try, he said.

And even at the third try, he required help from another organizer to convince the county clerk to allow him to register.

Allen’s story is not unique, he and other community organizers told NM Political Report. Allen was released from prison in 2015. By 2017, he completed his parole and became eligible, per state law, to vote. But though he had the right, he wasn’t able to register the first time he tried and he was turned away the second time as well, he said. The third time wasn’t easy either, he said. His friend, organizer Selinda Guerrero, began streaming the ensuing argument between them and government officials on social media before Allen was allowed to register to vote, Guerrero said.

Guerrero works with the Millions for Prisoners New Mexico, an advocacy organization. She said she has seen this happen time after time for people who are eligible, but cannot register to vote because they were once incarcerated. Allen said he wouldn’t have gone back a third time if Guerrero hadn’t insisted and said she would help him.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is proposing voting rights legislation that would include, among other things, improving voting registration access for individuals formerly incarcerated. Currently, a formerly incarcerated individual must have finished any parole or probation requirements and then show paperwork from the Department of Corrections to prove it, Alex Curtas, public information officer with the Secretary of State’s office, said.

Curtas said that Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver is aware that there has been voter disenfranchisement among the formerly incarcerated and that is the reason for this portion of the proposal.

“New Mexico already has a law that allows formerly incarcerated individuals to regain their voting rights but what happens in practice, it requires a lot of active work on behalf of the voter to prove they have all their ducks in a row…the Secretary of State is supporting this bill to make a much clearer line in the sand about who can and can’t vote here,” he said.

If the voting proposal is passed and signed, formerly incarcerated individuals would be able to register regardless of their probation and parole status and they would not need paperwork from the Department of Corrections to do so. It would also mean that they would not have to appear at the county clerk’s office but could register to vote in any voter registration location, including at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they get their license renewed. They would also be able to register to vote within their own communities at a voting registration booth operated by community organizers, Guerrero said.

Guerrero said going to a government office and registering to vote can be hard for formerly incarcerated individuals. Often, she said they suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or they may have literacy issues or transportation issues. They may feel discomfort returning to a government-run building after time served, she said. Not enabling individuals who were once incarcerated the right to register at any place the rest of society can register to vote is another form of disenfranchisement, Guerrero said.

Guerrero said disenfranchisement can also affect recidivism.

“Statistics show that when folks are welcomed back and given access and told ‘your voice matters’ and they are embraced, they do much better in society. For a lot of our folks, they feel they have never been heard at all in their lives,” Guerrero said.

Allen said civic engagement “is how I’ve broken the cycle of recidivism.”

“Not having a voice is why people become reactive and don’t care about the functions of society; they’re not allowed to participate,” he said.

Curtas said that Toulouse Oliver also sees removing the barriers to voting for formerly incarcerated individuals as a public safety issue.

“Civic engagement promotes a real sense of responsibility and belonging in the community. The quicker we can get that back to the people, the quicker they can feel ingratiated in their own community and that is fostered, the less likely they are to commit further crimes. There is data out there that supports that point. The more you can get people civically engaged, the less likely they are to inflict harm on themselves and community,” he said.

Improving voter registration for the formerly incarcerated is also an equity issue, Allen said because Hispanics and Latinos, Native Americans and African Americans are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. He said there are more than 17,000 individuals on probation and parole in New Mexico. The proposal would enable, if the bill passes and is signed, 17,000 individuals to have their voting rights restored.

Curtas agreed that restoring voting rights to individuals as soon as they are released from prison and removing barriers to registering is an equity issue because of the disproportionate number of people of color who serve time in the criminal justice system.

“This is another reason why these kinds of voting reforms can have an overall positive effect on the community,” Curtas said.

Guerrero said she supports allowing people to vote while they are incarcerated and said she is working toward a future when politicians have to visit state prisons in their district as part of their campaigning for office. Pointing out that prisoners pay taxes and must pay for a lot of services while in prison, she said prisoners “need a voice.” She said there are 2.3 million incarcerated and 6.5 million who are on probation or parole in the U.S.

“When we look at whose votes are suppressed, we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves, why? And how much of this has to do with the history of this country. The racial history, the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of African Americans,” she said.

For Allen, gaining the right to vote in 2017 enabled him to cast his vote for the first time in 2018. He said that before he gained his right to vote, he “wasn’t able to have conversations with law enforcement or really conservative individuals.”

“I would become reactive or shut down based on conditioning and past experience. What civic engagement has done for me is enable me to overcome the fear of not belonging,” he said.