Some 3,000 Santa Clara County parolees would get right to vote if Prop. 17 passes
Of the state's parolees who currently can't vote, 80 percent are people of color, according to proponents of Proposition 17. File photo.

More than 55,000 people — many of them people of color and women whose voices have been silent — would join the ranks of California voters if Proposition 17 passes in November.

The measure would restore voting rights to all Californians who have completed their prison terms. But that’s just the start, according to Prop. 17 campaign manager Shay Franco-Clausen.

“Eighty percent of (that number) is people of color… approximately 9,900 is women,” she said. “We’re now recognizing this very oppressive, Jim Crow-era law that’s disenfranchising our community members — what type of message is that sending to people?”

That rationale sparked massive support for the measure from the top down. As of Sept. 30, the Yes on Prop. 17 campaign announced endorsements from Rep. Anna Eshoo, Rep. Eric Swalwell, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, and others including the San Jose City Council.

Data conducted by David Binder Research between Aug. 13 and 17 found that 63 percent of likely voters support the proposition.

Opposition to the ballot has arisen from the Election Integrity Party in Santa Clarita, Crime Victims United in Auburn and Republican State Senator Jim Nielsen. Opponents argue criminals should not be allowed to vote until they have paid their debt to society, including completion of parole. They also say the measure denies justice to crime victims.

If the measure passes, California would join 17 states — both red and blue — and Washington, D.C., to restore voting rights to people upon release from prison. Further, California would become the first state to restore voting rights via statewide ballot measure since the 2018 passage of Amendment 4 in Florida.

Franco-Clausen said voters need to reevaluate what parole truly means.

“Parole is not an extension of their prison term,” she said. “What part of that rehabilitation prison term is actually effective?”

Javier Aguirre, director of Reentry Services for Santa Clara County, said of the 55,000 parolees in the state, about 2,500 to 3,000 live in Santa Clara County.

Reentry Services offers parolees a 180-day program and works with about 80 to 100 parolees a day. Each parolee is linked with employment services, outpatient substance abuse treatment programs, housing services, medical services, and more. The goal, Aguirre said, is to serve parolees’ immediate needs and get them back on their feet.

In a recent survey of the importance of voting, the parolees said voting is “very important.”

“One way to reintegrate is to voice their position on matters that impact their communities… and the right to vote is one of those rights they can use to exercise their voice,” Aguirre said.

Jose Gonzalez, a parolee, became aware of the Prop. 17 campaign through the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an organization that has helped parolees — both adults and youths — reintegrate since its inception in 2013.

Gonzalez was incarcerated beginning at age 16, in prison for 19 years, and was released in 2015. Once out of prison, he said his primary focus was to reintegrate in the way he wanted — going to school, getting a job, and focusing on finding a home. But he aimed for more.

“When you’re released or discharged, you’re on the correct path,” he said. “What better way to reintegrate than, at the very least, (to have) the opportunity to vote, not just for local elected officials, but for national elected officials?”

Gonzalez said most people he spoke to about the Prop. 17 campaign were unaware parolees were unable to vote, an issue that’s largely affected marginalized communities for decades.

“They could understand someone currently incarcerated not voting, but if you were ‘free,’ so to speak, and able to get a job, and drive a car with a registered license and insurance, they didn’t know that you were still unable to vote,” he said.

While the number of parolees may appear to be 55,000 by Franco-Clausen’s and Aguirre’s metrics, Gonzalez said he believes the number to be much higher.

“When they finally discharge parole, (parolees) may not even know that they have the option (to vote),” he said. “I’m assuming this number is going to grow exponentially once a law like this is passed.”

Aguirre said parolees have a lot to gain from voting, primarily in relation to their families.

“A lot of our clients have children, and many of their children are in the school systems,” he said. “From a local perspective, they have a say on who should be on their local school board, that make decisions that impact their children’s education.”

There are many propositions on the California ballot that could lead to major criminal justice reforms, including Prop. 20 and Prop. 25. “There are many individuals and many positions that are disenfranchising individuals from exercising their right to vote, and Prop. 17 is a way to remove one of those limitations,” Aguirre said.

For those who oppose Prop. 17, Gonzalez said they should take into consideration that once a person is imprisoned, that is the punishment.

“Post-release, that means the sentence is already served, and they were deemed eligible to be returned back to their homes and to society,” he said. “That should also come with the fact that they should not be viewed as less of a person.”

Contact Grace Stetson at [email protected] and follow her @grace_m_stetson on Twitter.

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