Proposition 17: Should People Be Able to Vote While on Parole? (Transcript)

 (iStock)

Feeling overwhelmed by your ballot? Don't worry, you've come to the right place. From Oct. 1 - 16, Bay Curious is exploring the 12 statewide ballot propositions in our Prop Fest series. This episode tackles Proposition 17, which would restore voting rights for Californians on parole for a felony.

Transcript

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:00] Hey, everybody, it's Bay Curious Prop Fest. I'm Olivia Allen-Price.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:07] We've come through some tricky props these past few days, but Proposition 17 is refreshingly straightforward: should people be able to vote while they're on parole? And get this, the title you'll see on your ballot? It's actually easy to understand.

Voice 1 [00:00:22] Prop 17 restores right to vote after completion of prison term.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:26] There are still a few nuances to pick apart on this one. We'll get into those today as we go through Proposition 17, voting while on parole.

Sponsored

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:38] We asked KQED politics reporter Guy Marzorati to stop by and get into this one with us. Welcome, Guy.


Guy Marzorati
[00:00:44] Hey, Olivia.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:45] Give us the rundown. What are we voting on in Prop 17?

Guy Marzorati [00:00:49] So, Prop 17 would restore voting rights for Californians on parole for a felony. And there's about 40,000 Californians who would get the right to vote if this measure passes.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:00:59] So, right now, if you've committed a felony and you're on parole, you cannot vote, right?

Guy Marzorati [00:01:05] That's right.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:06] Guy, this may seem like a really basic question, but what exactly is parole and how long does it usually last?

Guy Marzorati [00:01:13] So, parole is a period of supervision for people convicted of a felony. It takes place after they leave state prison. And parole terms typically last a few years. But, in some cases, they can last for the rest of the parolee's life.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:01:26] OK. And it seems like in recent decades the state has generally been moving, sort of, more in the direction of prisoner rights. And this is something that's been playing out, you know, for decades.

Guy Marzorati [00:01:37] Right. And this has been the case on the national level, we've seen a lot of recent change and push for enfranchisement for people convicted of felonies, people on parole. For most of California's history this was really not discussed and debated. If you were convicted of a felony, you were banned from voting for life – even after you're done with your parole. In the 60s and 70s, the state Supreme Court took this up and ultimately said there's not a lot of risk of voter fraud and it's an equal protection violation to deny the right to vote to Californians after they have completed their parole. Then the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and overruled that. They said, no voting is not a fundamental right for citizens who are convicted of a felony. And it ultimately took a state proposition, Proposition 10 in November of 1974 to extend the right to vote to Californians who completed their parole term. So, now here we are, all the way in 2020. And Proposition 17 is trying to take that a step further and give the right to vote for people who are currently on parole.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:02:36] And how do we stack up with other states when it comes to, you know, letting people who have committed felonies vote?

Guy Marzorati [00:02:41] California's actually in the middle of the pack on this. 21 states are in the same boat as us where voting rights are restored after the full term or penalty of a sentence. But 16 states have gone further. They let parolees vote, including Oregon and Nevada. So, even though California's been at the vanguard of a lot of criminal justice reform, when it comes to voting rights, it's actually been kind of in the middle of the pack.

Olivia Allen-Price
[00:03:12] All right, I want to get into some of the arguments for and against that we're hearing. Who has come out in support of this one?

Guy Marzorati [00:03:18] It's largely been Democrats in the state legislature that backed this measure, initially. They're the ones who placed it on the ballot with a two thirds vote. And they've argued really that civic participation is a key part of reintegrating parolees into society. I talked with Democratic Assemblyman Kevin McCarty of Sacramento, he wrote Proposition 17.

Kevin McCarty [00:03:37] Parole, by definition, isn't punishment. Parole when it was created – you look at the legal definition of it – it's to help reintegrate formerly incarcerated back to society. That means find housing and health care, find a job, you know, be a member of your community, which means voting.

Olivia Allen-Price
[00:03:56] And what about the opposition on this one?

Guy Marzorati [00:03:58] Well, the opposition is really led by Republicans in the state legislature, most of whom voted against even putting this on the ballot. They've argued that parole is really part of the punishment and parolees shouldn't have the right to vote until they've completed that term. They say that California's made a lot of shifts in recent years to move nonviolent offenders to county jails and people on probation who currently have the right to vote. So, opponents of Prop 17 say that people still without the right to vote or what they call the worst of the worst. And that's kind of the argument that Republican Senator Jim Nielsen made.

Jim Nielsen [00:04:32] Take a look at the universe we're dealing with in this particular case. We're dealing with murderers and rapists, not low-level offenders, but utmost-serious offenders that we have incarcerated. So, it's an issue not of them being able to get able to vote again – they will be able to – but they have to complete their sentence and the completion of the sentence requires a completion of their parole period.

Olivia Allen-Price
[00:05:03] So, this is really a question of how you view the role of parole.

Guy Marzorati [00:05:08] That's absolutely right. So, supporters of Proposition 17 say it should really be focused on the rehabilitation part of it. If you're reintegrating people to society, they're looking for jobs, they're getting education, they're living in our communities and raising families, a natural extension of that is civic participation and the voting process. Opponents of Prop 17 say, no, think of parole and a prison term as a football field – getting to parole is just 90 yards, and you still have to complete your term before you're extended what they call "privileges of democracy", something like voting.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:05:44] All right, let's move on to campaign finance. It looks like nobody is really spending money on this prop so far.

Guy Marzorati [00:05:50] That's right. This is not a big money campaign so far. We've seen on the yes side, philanthropist Susan Pritzker and the ACLU are the biggest donors and support. The no campaign, to this point, hasn't gotten any funding. But what's interesting on the on the yes side is really elevating the voices of parolees, putting them front and center, both working on the campaign and in the kind of public messaging, doing a lot of that legwork, telling their stories and why they feel like this change, if Prop 17 passes, would make a big difference in their life. I've talked to José Gonzalez, who's one of those parolees. He told me why it's so important to him that Prop 17 passes.

José Gonzalez [00:06:26] For me, it's important because now I, I have a son and I'm, I'm working and I've graduated. I got my college degree. And I want to change that, at the very least, that's something that small. The change is small in the sense where I could be talking about voting. I could have, you know, something visual like the sticker on my chest that says I voted to where my son sees it and it changes his narrative or his perspective on what it is to vote.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:06:54] All right. Guy Marzorati, KQED politics reporter. Thanks for swinging by.

Guy Marzorati [00:06:58] Thank you.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:00] In a nutshell, a vote yes on Proposition 17 says you think people convicted of felonies should be able to vote while they're on parole. A no vote means you think current law should stand and people with felonies can only vote once they've completed their parole sentence.

Olivia Allen-Price [00:07:17] We'll be back again with Guy tomorrow to talk voting rights again, this time for a different group: young people. If you're enjoying Bay Curious Prop Fest so far, please share it with a friend, or maybe give us some love on social media. We rely on recommendations like that to get the word out about what we're doing here. Thanks.

Olivia Allen-Price
[00:07:38] Bay Curious Prop Fest is produced by Katrina Schwartz, Rob Speight and me Olivia Allen-Price with a big assist from the entire KQED newsroom. You can find more in-depth election coverage at KQED dot org slash elections.

Voice 2 [00:07:53] Bay Curious is mate at member supported KQED in San Francisco. I'll see you tomorrow.

Sponsored