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From formerly incarcerated to building power with voter registration

Tim Kornegay Guest Oped | 10/22/2020, midnight

I once felt disenfranchised and embraced the narrative wholeheartedly that neither my voice nor my vote counted. However, I now know differently and I will cast my vote for change on Nov. 3, as I have since 2016, when my right to vote was reactivated after successfully completing parole.

According to a report by the Sentencing Project, 5.2 million Americans are unable to vote because of felony disenfranchisement, or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes. This means that come Tuesday, Nov. 3, about 2.3 percent of the voting-age population is banned from voting.

The same report highlights the racial disparities permeated by these laws. For example, one in 16 African-Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African-Americans, and over 560,000 Latinx Americans, or over 2 percent of the voting-eligible population.

Furthermore, a large number of this population are unaware of their voting eligibility and their right to vote upon the successful completion of their parole sentence. No one should be denied the right and opportunity to participate in the voting process solely because of the stigma associated with a conviction. Due to misinformation by the system and institutions being derelict in disseminating accurate information to a population that has been and continues to be told that our lives don’t matter, we don’t vote and if we do, it doesn’t feel like our vote actually counts. 

I'm a Newly Empowered Voice leader of South Central Los Angeles who triggered the criminal justice apparatus consequences long before I understood their long-lasting consequences, resulting in a total of 33 years of incarceration. For over 33 years, I was unable to vote and when I was finally released, I had to wait until I was done with parole.

To be eligible to vote in California, an individual cannot currently be in state or federal prison or on parole for the conviction of a felony. This leaves 50,000 people from our communities out of the voting process.

I found my voice at the midpoint of my incarceration and was forced to wait until 2015 when I regained my physical freedom and was given the opportunity to express it through community activism and organizing. My lived experiences with incarceration and disenfranchisement led me to work tirelessly for changes in my community.

Currently, as a staff member with LA Voice, a local faith-based organization, I’m an advocate and frontline proponent for the implementation of reforms that address the real needs of our “newly empowered voices,” or those that like myself have been released from incarceration. Through LA Free the Vote, we focus on voter registration and education of “Newly Empowered Voices.”

Despite COVID-19, our extensive outreach program successfully reaches out to folks who dwell in the margins and fly under the radar of most voter registration exercises and campaigns. Our phone banking efforts, in partnership with the County of Los Angeles and the Office of Diversion and Reentry, have reached a minimum of 5,000 folks and registered over 900 who’ve been justice system-involved. We’ve assisted them in expanding their information base, education, and understanding of the value and power of registering and exercising their right to vote. A large number of those were engaged for the very first time in their lives. 

To conclude, the work is cut out for me very clearly. I will continue to support my community by ensuring they have the tools necessary so that Newly Empowered Voices remain empowered and we never again allow our voices to be silenced.

We can no longer have elections or a country without New Empowered Voices being recognized.

We must no longer allow and embrace the historic narrative that the 3 B’s “Black, Brown or Broke” aren’t worthy of redemption and second chances. Everyone deserves a chance, especially those of us who never really got the first chance. The journey to change is real.

And undoubtedly, those who are closest to pain are closest to the solution.

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