Approximately six million Americans are denied the right to vote because they have a conviction. This is called felony disenfranchisement and it is one of the many tactics of systemic racism. For many years, formerly incarcerated people--like the majority of us at VOTE-- have been stripped of our right to vote, which is essentially the right to speak up and see true justice. Without our voting rights, we’ve had to watch as people who don’t understand or care about us make decisions for our future. But, as of March 1, many of us no longer have to watch from the sidelines. Thanks to the dedication and successes of formerly incarcerated leaders, on that day about 40,000 Louisianans with convictions became eligible to vote. Under this new law--Act 636--anyone who: is off probation and parole, is on probation, or has been on parole for at least 5 years can vote. Now that many of us have our voting rights back, we need to hit the polls. We need to vote on behalf of those who still can’t, who are still behind bars. We need to be modern-day mythbusters, knocking down every argument we hear about why voting doesn’t matter. Because it really, truly does. By voting, we can elect leaders who will help us create a world without mass incarceration.
Louisiana has a super-election in less than 60 days. In addition to local elections for sheriffs and judges, we have elections for the Governor, Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 State Representatives, all 39 State Senators, and more. Every one of these positions has a say in the fate of mass incarceration in our state. In other words, the time to use your vote to help us fight the criminal (in)justice system is Oct. 12. The deadline to register in person is Sept. 11--less than a month away--and the online deadline is close behind on Sept. 21. Please vote because the system will only work for us if we change it to be that way.
1. “My vote is just one vote, so it’s not significant enough to matter.”
This is an excuse that almost all of us have heard. It's understandable that people might feel this way, but it couldn't be further from the truth. There have been many times in history that a single vote was the deciding factor in a major election. In 2016, a House Representative from Wyoming won by just one vote, 583 to 582. In 2008, Republican Rep. Mike Kelly won re-election by a vote of 5,018 to 5,017 over Democratic challenger Karl Kassel. Four years later, Representative Stacey Newman of Missouri won 1,823 to 1,822--just one vote more than her opponent. Now how can you tell us that just one vote can't change the course of the future?
2. “There are no good options, none of them stand for what I truly believe in.”
No candidate is perfect, and that fact shouldn’t discourage us from voting for the one who most closely aligns with our beliefs. It’s better to have someone in office who agrees with two or three of the core issues we are working to reform, rather than someone who will actively support mass incarceration. Choosing someone who checks off some of our boxes is still a step in the right direction.
3. “No candidate truly cares about us.”
It can be hard for us to trust candidates who say they care about us when we’ve been taken advantage of or completely disregarded by the government for centuries. But, there are candidates who do really care about us. For example, Louisiana House Representative Patricia Smith is not shy in showing how she cares about her people in Louisiana, especially those of us with convictions. Smith helped us pass House Bill 265, which restored voting rights to 40,000 formerly incarcerated Louisianans on March 1. When she’s not in her office working on legislation, she is out in her community. On a Sunday, she came out to a Black Voters Matter voter registration event we were hosting, and a few weeks later attended several women’s parole hearings to show her support for bringing them home. She is an elected official who is not in it for the money or the power, and she’s not the only one. Royce Duplessis is another Louisiana House Representative who has come to our meetings, asking his community for feedback about what he can do better--an action that is sometimes ignored by our politicians. These politicians were elected by people like us, and just imagine how we could elect more leaders like them if we all voted.
4. “The government system is corrupt. It’s broken beyond repair at this point.”
The criminal (in)justice system we’re living under isn't broken, it works perfectly. It does exactly what it was made to do. But the way it’s made is not for our people. What makes our system work this way one might ask? People. People are the ones who create and maintain the system. A way to change the system is to change the people who influence the system, and that’s where voting comes in. We need to vote for the people who make sure the system is in our best interest, and not vote for the people who perpetuate corruption.
5. “The Electoral College system is rigged. Hilary got more votes than Trump, but he won.”
The Electoral College only applies to presidential elections, which are every 4 years. There are so many other important elections between then, however, that affect our daily lives and do not use the Electoral College. Local and state elections are based on a simple popular vote win and influence issues closer to home, such as housing, employment, reproductive rights, and criminal (in)justice reform. Our votes have even more power locally than they do at the federal level because, on average, far less people vote locally than they do nationally. Because the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, Secretary of State, Treasurer, all 105 House Representatives, and all 39 State Senators have their seats open on Oct. 12, Louisiana has a chance to “reset” the state on that day. In other words, we can elect officials who will create and change laws and policies that directly affect us.
6. “I have so much on my plate right now, so voting is not a priority.”
When we are just trying to make ends meet day by day--which is even harder for people with convictions--it’s easy to push voting to the side. Voting can seem very disconnected from the challenges we face everyday, but it can actually release those stresses. The minimum wage we receive, the healthcare we have or don’t have, and whether or not we’re able to access housing with the stamp of incarceration on our backs are all a function of the government. By voting, we are making our voices heard and let the government know how it should be taking care of us.
“The polls are not easily accessible for me.”
Voting takes less than 15 minutes on average, whereas the issues and people we’re voting on will affect us for the rest of our lives. While many states require employers to give employees paid time off to go vote, unfortunately Louisiana isn’t one of them. But if we all go vote, we can change this and add our state to that list! In the meantime, you can pack a lunch for work and head to the polls during your break or early before your day starts. Most polls are open as early as 7am and as late as 8pm. Find your polling location hours here. If transportation to the polls is an issue, there are options such as getting a free ride through Vote Riders or a Carpool Network if you’re in New Orleans. If it’s still not possible for you to get to the polls on Election Day, you can vote early during the Early Voting period (Sept. 28 through Oct. 5 for the upcoming Oct. 12 election). Or you can submit an absentee ballot as long as you plan ahead so that it will get to the Registrar’s Office in time for the election.
8. “I don’t think I’m eligible to vote.”
As of March 1, if you are off probation or parole; have been on parole for at least five years; or on probation, you CAN vote! If you’ve been to jail but never received a conviction, you can vote, too. Finally, if you have a misdemeanor charge, you never lost your voting rights! Disenfranchisement is only based on felony convictions, and we fight to end this practice every day. Don’t assume you or your loved ones can’t vote! If you’re unsure, please call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at email@example.com. There are a lot of myths out there about who can and can’t vote and what you need to do to get registered, but we’re here to help you figure it all out.
9. “I don’t want to be called for jury duty.”
Juries are the cornerstone of democracy in America. Juries decide if we are innocent or guilty. As such, our lives can be in the palm of their hands. Juries were created to be a representative sample of the person on trial’s peers, yet in Louisiana, on average only two of the 12 jurors are people of color. Worse, until January 1 of this year, Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed people to be convicted on a non-unanimous jury. In other words, this Jim Crow-era law made it possible for 10 white jurors to convict someone who they thought was guilty, even if the remaining two jurors thought he was innocent. This led to the wrongful conviction of many Black Louisianans, including our own leader, Norris Henderson. Today, thanks to Norris’ leadership, non-unanimous juries are no longer legal in Louisiana. But that doesn’t change the racial makeup of juries, so it’s as important as ever for those who care about ending mass incarceration to show up for jury duty. This gives us the power to make fair and just decisions on behalf of those in our communities whose lives and circumstances may be a lot like ours.
10. “I don’t vote because it’s not part of my norm. I have never been surrounded by people who vote.”
Now is the time to break the cycle of avoiding civic engagement. Many of us have lived our lives without understanding the importance of voting, whether it be because our parents never voted or our social circle never talked about politics. But our ancestors didn’t fight for our rights--including the right to cast a ballot--just for us to dismiss them and ignore the chance to create change. We owe it to them to never miss an election day and to show the next generation the importance of exercising the right to vote. If everyone participated in voting, our whole government could be rid of injustices. We need to wake up the sleeping giant by having our voices be heard at the election polls.
If we haven’t convinced you by now to vote, we won’t stop trying. With less than 80 days until the Oct. 12 election and so many seats up for election, there is a lot more work to be done. If you or someone you know is interested in helping us register people to vote, call us at 504-571-9599 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get you set up. Geaux vote!
The force moved me.
A powerful one beyond my conscious control--it pushed me through the torrential rainstorm darkening the landscape of my consciousness. Walk upstairs, the force compelled. Turn right. Three shadowy, indistinguishable figures were to my right, standing just outside of my mom’s apartment door. Go inside. Another dark figure inside--keep moving. Somehow, someway, as I moved past the figure inside, a slurry jumble of sounds coalesced into a recognizable expression: “What’s up, Rico?” But I was powerless to respond to it. Keep moving. Then all of a sudden, as if teleported, I found myself standing at the foot of my mother’s bed, trembling uncontrollably as I looked down at her napping. About two feet to the left of her head, a night stand held a small, rectangular alarm clock. In red, computerized digits, the clock read 2:53 p.m.
Just an hour earlier, I had been playing Nintendo at my friend Kevin’s house.
“I’m tired of beating you,” I said to Kevin, playfully.
“It’s three-to-one,” he responded. “You said the same thing last time and I came back on you.”
We were playing a Nintendo basketball game called Double Dribble. Kevin, who was fourteen, thought he was always supposed to beat me in any competition since he was a year older than I was.
“Let’s go by Lil Robert’s house and shoot a game of twenty-one. I might let you win a game,” I said.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Lil Robert was a friend of ours who lived in a section of our neighborhood called ‘’Cross The Canal.’ To get to his house, we’d literally have to cross over a canal that divided The Loop--our neighborhood--into two almost symmetrical sections. The canal divided The Loop in other ways as well. ‘Cross the Canal was the more crime ridden section of The Loop. Once happy homes where large family gatherings had taken place, where childish squeals had erupted from little kids playing hide-and-seek, where love, laughter, and life had vibrated like a pleasant hum, soothing and welcoming--most of those homes ‘Cross The Canal had been reduced to barely habitable dwellings. Some were crackhouses in front of which stood any number of drugs dealers plying their trade. Sometimes when we’d pass them, the younger ones close to our age--Kevin and mine--would stare at us with provocative intensity, daring either of us to respond to their unspoken challenge. Beware, their eyes said to us in warning. Beware!
Nevertheless, whenever we wanted to play basketball, we’d go to Lil Robert’s. His house was a refuge of sorts ‘Cross The Canal. His dad had bought him an adjustable basketball goal for his thirteenth birthday and set it up in their driveway to keep Lil Robert close to home and out of trouble. All of the neighborhood kids loved to play ball over there since they could adjust the goal to its lowest notch and mimic the slam dunks of their favorite basketball players.
The sun hugged me when I stepped outside of Kevin’s house. I greeted it with me eyes closed, smiling as it delicately embraced me with its warmth, a sensation which reminded me of the loving, good-bye hugs my mother gave to me just before she’d send me off to stay with my dad for the holidays. A lot of people will be there today, I thought, as Kevin and I skipped down the street. In our neighborhood, everybody liked to play basketball on beautiful summer days.
But to my surprise, when we made it to Lil Robert’s house, Shane was the only person there. Shane was another friend of ours who lived ‘Cross The Canal. We often played basketball with him whenever we met up at Lil Robert’s house. You could count on him being there any time the sun was out.
“Where’s everyone at?” Kevin asked him.
“I don’t know,” Shane replied. “I was just sitting here waiting for somebody to show up so I could beat ‘em in a game of twenty-one,” he added tauntingly.
“Take out,” I said.
Shane took off a black backpack that he always carried with him and laid it in the grass right beside the driveway. Then he took the ball out.
Just as he usually did, Shane completely dominated the game. He was sixteen years old, five feet ten inches tall, athletic, and very strong. He was also very aggressive. Neither Kevin (standing at about five feet even) nor I (standing slightly under that) could compete against his physical or athletic advantages. We tried though.
One play during the second game, as Shane drove hard to the basket, Kevin, laughing, jumped on his back to prevent him from dunking. After shaking Kevin off his back, Shane immediately spun around. His presence had completely transformed; it radiated with violent energy. It was there like atomic energy, present but not visible, unstable and highly charged--explosive.
“What did you do that for?” he yelled angrily at Kevin . Then he grabbed the basketball with both hands and slammed it into Kevin’s face. Kevin staggered backwards, stunned. Shane then turned and glowered at me. “You want some, nigga?” he asked and started in my direction. At his approach, my reality seemed to speed into a streaking almost imperceptible blur: adrenaline rushed; time zoomed; sound muted. The minutes earlier screech… screech… screech… of athletic shoes gripping on concrete pavement; the loud CLANG of a vibrating rim; Kevin’s gleeful, childish exclaims of “Michael Jordan”--all of those 'summertime in The Loop' sounds--transformed into tragic silence seconds after I looked away from Shane’s stare and ran towards his black backpack where I knew he always kept a loaded handgun.
* * *
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but at some point I raced home from ’cross the canal, shock subjugating my conscious thought, turning instead to instinctual drive. So it was with a vague sense of puzzlement that I read the time--2:53 p.m.--on the alarm clock beside my mother’s bed. After standing at the foot of her bed for a few seconds, my mind cleared up suddenly, like someone had blown a layer of settled dust from the surface of an old record. “Ma! Ma, wake up! Ma, wake up!” The words nervously rushed out of my mouth. I was just about to reach down and shake her, but she turned on her side and groggily looked up at me. I was her only child, her innocent, precious and only son. “I think I just killed Shane!” she heard me say in a panic.
Before that day, I didn’t know that taking someone’s life was something to be proud of. I had been a normal thirteen-year-old kid who loved to hang out with his friends and play videogames. Nor did I know that I was supposed to idolize the neighborhood drug dealers, gangsters, and killers; no one had ever taught me that what they did was a route to success. I certainly used to listen to gangsta rap music, but only because I liked the sound--before that day, I had not interpreted its messages as tutorials on how to live. But years later, after I had served two years and eight months in a juvenile prison, I had been reprogrammed to travel life in accordance to the rules of a new value system. I had crossed the canal.
Jirrico McKee is currently incarcerated at Raymond LaBorde Correctional Center (RLCC).
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