“I pay taxes, I follow all the rules. The law affects my life way more than the average person. There are a lot more stipulations that govern my life and I have no say.”
Taylor works at a West Virginia nonprofit and is serving a multi-year probation sentence. Under West Virginia law, she and others convicted of felony offenses are not eligible to vote until after they have completed their sentence or parole supervision.
As a result, one out of every 100 West Virginians is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. This second-class citizenship disproportionately impacts Black West Virginians, who are more than three times as likely as the general population to be ineligible to vote.
More than half of those barred from voting are living in our communities under probation or parole supervision. Like Taylor, people under supervision may be subject to dozens of conditions that govern their daily lives. They include requirements to attend substance use disorder treatment (even if that treatment conflicts with work schedules), to avoid contact with people who have felony convictions (even if they are family and friends), and to expect a supervising officer to make unannounced visits to one’s home or workplace.
Yet despite this level of government monitoring and control, our government is not accountable to these citizens. Kenny Matthews, who worked at a substance use treatment center after his release from prison, described the absurdity of watching state legislators debate issues affecting people like him while he had no power to vote for those elected officials: “It’s taxation without representation.”
Amber Blankenship works with people returning home from prison and concedes that she did not regularly vote before she was incarcerated. “I never thought that it mattered,” she said. “Sometimes when you’re dealing with certain life problems – trauma, poverty, domestic violence – voting doesn’t seem that important.”
But her time in prison convinced her otherwise. “I started to listen to other people’s stories, and it was an unusual number of people who had been traumatized and now were in prison and needed healing. I came to the conclusion that I had a responsibility to do something.”
Amber is not alone. In dozens of conversations over the summer, formerly incarcerated people told us that they too wanted to make a difference in their communities.
Successful rehabilitation “means reestablishing a sense of connection to society, which voting may help to promote.” Research has shown that democratic engagement is associated with a reduction in recidivism. Studies of people with criminal convictions revealed that those who exercised their right to vote were less likely to be rearrested than those who did not.
In Amber’s experience, voting helped her feel like a meaningful participant in society with an investment in the people and places around her. “It takes someone from a community to change that community. But if someone doesn’t feel like they belong, then it’s hard to make that change.”
Restoring the right to vote to returning citizens is one way to create belonging. And it’s a popular policy: 70 percent of Americans favor allowing people convicted of felonies to vote after serving their sentences. In recent years, several states have changed their laws to allow people to vote under probation or parole supervision.
Still, we can do even better. West Virginia can ensure that her citizens never lose their right to vote following a felony conviction.
Like those on probation and parole, people in prison share the concerns of their fellow West Virginians. They are parents who want their kids to attend safe and well-resourced schools. They are people with substance use disorders who want their loved ones to have access to treatment options and mental health care in the community. They are future returning citizens who want safe roads, rural broadband, and access to good jobs.
Maine, Vermont, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico already allow citizens to vote from prison. Voting from prison is protected throughout most of the European Union and “in countries as disparate as Indonesia, South Africa, Canada, and Kenya.”
Those who wish to continue restricting the right to vote may point to a 1974 Supreme Court opinion, which held that a state does not violate the constitution when it bars people with felony convictions from voting. But what the Supreme Court finds constitutionally permissible is hardly a barometer of what is right.
Throughout our country’s history, laws have denied Americans the right to vote for not being white, for not owning property, for not paying a poll tax, for not being able to read, and for being a woman. Laws that are patently discriminatory today, stood for decades – and in some cases, for centuries – until voters and the popularly elected branches of government did what was right.
Will we have a government that aims to represent the will of all people?
Voting rights are simply one means to that end. We can also invite people impacted by the criminal system to testify in the halls of state government. We can ask them to serve on state advisory boards and commissions. Every day, the State of West Virginia makes decisions that affect the lives of people with criminal records and their families. Most days, those same people are kept out of those decisions.
West Virginia lawmakers can start by making people on probation and parole eligible to vote. Taylor, Kenny, and Amber are experts on the criminal legal system and how it impacts the people who go through it. It’s time for elected officials to start listening.
 Name has been changed to protect individual’s privacy; Taylor’s story provided to author on October 28, 2022.
 Author interview with Kenny Matthews, September 29, 2022.
 Author interview with Amber Blankenship, October 28, 2022.
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