Mantell Stevens: Right to vote helps connect community to our government

February 19, 2014 

Mantell Stevens is a member of Imani Baptist Church in Lexington and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

I am a Kentuckian. I have never seen the inside of a prison, but my right to vote has been taken away.

I often wonder, what did I do that was so bad that I had to lose my right to vote forever? And how much is my community losing out because my voice and the voices of 240,000 others have been silenced in our democracy?

When I look around, I see lots of things that need to be better. I'm struggling. People I know are struggling. There are so many things that don't work the way they should, that aren't right.

Take a look at our judicial system. It's a mess. Look at the lack of affordable housing and job opportunities. We have so much work to do.

The most important way for me to change my situation and help make other people's situations better is to vote. We have to build more of a connection between community and government. Participating in the election process is the most powerful way to do that.

It's easy to lose sight of how important it is to vote when you are working to find a job, keep food on the table, secure housing, or pay for gas. But really, I don't see any way to improve our situation other than g etting more people involved and participating in our democracy.

When I talk with friends, I try to help them make those connections. If your situation is bad, what is it you can do to make it better? What can your city and state officials do to help? Who are the people who are working to make life better? We have to get involved. We have to vote locally, at least. And we have to hold our leaders accountable once they get in office.

House Bill 70 is a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore the right to vote to most former felons once they have served their full sentence. Passing this bill and restoring the right to vote matters to all of us, not just to some of us.

This bill doesn't just benefit African-Americans or people who have lost the right to vote. All of us have a stake in fixing our broken democracy. We all benefit when more people are invested in making their communities better.

I still can't vote, but I am involved in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. It's been the best thing to happen to me in the past couple of years. I don't have room to do anything wrong because I'm doing so much good. Your whole mind-set changes when you feel responsible for other people.

Now I want to improve where I live. I want to make an investment in Kentucky. Before, I felt like I wanted to get away from here because I felt the opportunities were limited. The more I get involved in my community, the more I want to improve it. I want to do more. And if I had my rights back, that would be icing on the cake.

A lot of people I know are having a hard time finding jobs. One of the first things I tell them is, "get involved in your community right now." There's so much opportunity. You can build a network of people and pool resources. If people see you working in your community, they are more likely to invest in you. A lot of the reason I got the job I have now is that my employer knew I was working in the community. They care about what I'm doing now, not what I was doing back then.

Our democracy is not very welcoming right now, especially for people in my situation. Our state tells nearly one-quarter of a million people that they cannot have a vote or a voice. That leaves people discouraged and feeling as if they don't matter. That's far from the truth. People will do the right thing if given the opportunity. But we have to open up the doors. We have to give everyone a voice.

A version of HB 70 has passed the House seven years in a row, but it has never had a vote in the Kentucky Senate. Whether or not you have the right to vote, please make your voice heard today.

Leave a message for your state senator by calling 1-800-372-7181. Tell him or her: Don't delay any longer. Restore the vote by passing HB 70. Don't mess it up with any amendments. Just do what's right.

Mantell Stevens is a member of Imani Baptist Church in Lexington and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

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