On a rainy day in November, I found myself part of the democratic process, so proud of being a citizen, canvassing with my clipboard in hand. I knocked on doors, gave the much-rehearsed pitch, then checked off one house and moved on to the next.
Until I encountered her.
She opened the door, looking bedraggled. Her eyes were tired as I rambled through my pitch. Her simple response, “I’m a felon. I can’t vote.” She closed the door quietly, and I stood stunned, not knowing that Kentucky was one of only three states that permanently takes away the right to vote from citizens with past criminal convictions, even people who have served their sentences.
I had no idea that a theft of $500 was a felony and could cost a person their voting rights forever.
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Imagine things that cost $500: a Playstation 4 console with controllers and a few games; a nice mountain bike; a decent-sized Smart TV.
How could any of those things be worth a person losing their right to participate as a citizen, even after serving their sentence?
And wasn’t that supposed to be the point of a sentence, of punishment? People who do the crime must do the time, but isn’t our goal to reintegrate them back into society? And how do we reintegrate them if they are forever seen as outcasts?
On the Fourth of July, we celebrated our independence from a government that wanted to rule the colonies and demand taxes without representation. Felons do not get reprieve from paying taxes, so why should they lose their right to participate in a representative democracy? Where does the re-entry into society part fit in?
To be honest, before I met her, I really didn’t care. It didn’t affect me, and in some ways I guess I have never taken the time to educate myself on the issue because I felt like they deserved it.
The label “felon” is like a scarlet letter signaling to the rest of our civilized community that in our midst was a dangerous, unrepentant lawbreaker.
But there was something about encountering her, seeing her, face to face. Not a statistic. Not a case study. A real person. Juxtaposed against my exuberance for the upcoming election was this young woman unable to take part in the system that governs so many aspects of her life.
It felt undemocratic, excessively punitive.
My fleeting encounter with her reminded me of someone I knew. He was convicted of a felony in his early 20s, but he has held the same job for more than a decade, being consistently passed over for promotions. Checking that “felon” box one time has closed many doors for him. Now in his 50s, he long ago served his sentence but is still paying for the crime.
This seems the opposite of what our criminal-justice system — “justice” being the key word — is supposed to accomplish.
At the end of my canvassing day, I turned in my clipboard, having visited all of the houses assigned to me — just two streets, up one side, down the other. But the day was a journey of self-discovery, because my encounter with her said more about me than it did about her. Being a citizen means we have to look out for each others’ rights, not just our own.
I hope that in the future, she will be able to exercise her right to vote and that my adopted Kentucky home will leave that notorious band of three and reinstate the voting rights of those who have served their time.
I have that right; so should she.
Tina Bryson is a writer living in Lexington.