Several weeks ago, a gentleman came to a Progressive Leadership Alliance Nevada (PLAN) meeting and asked for help restoring his right to vote. After 12 years, he was now eligible, but he needed assistance navigating our state’s incredibly complicated voting restoration laws.
As I listened to this older White gentleman talk about his desire to be an active citizen, I recalled my childhood and my grandfather, Varise Mason. My grandfather was born in 1905 and wasn’t able to vote until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965. I vividly remember how my grandfather would take out his suit the night before Election Day, polish his white patent leather buckle church shoes and discuss which candidates he thought would help Black folks move forward.
It was an incredible sight to witness. I can still visualize him getting into his blue Buick, honking for my grandmother to hurry along. The pride he embodied as he drove off to the polling place was priceless. It did not matter that he had a third grade education or that he had grown up in a country where Black men, women and children were held captive as slaves only a century prior, a country where he was later considered worth only two-thirds of a person and a place still plagued by racist segregation known as Jim Crow. In our household, my grandfather made it known that voting was not just a civic duty, but a personal responsibility. He would say, “Blood was shed for this day.”
So as I listened to that formerly incarcerated older White gentlemen tell me how important it was for him to regain his right to vote, I was reminded that Nevada still has a lot of work to do to make sure that all citizens can vote.
The Sentencing Project estimates that more than six million U.S. citizens are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, and nearly 100,000 live in our state. We also lay claim to one of the most complex laws to restore voting rights for returning citizens. According to the Brennan Center, Nevada’s courts only restored the voting rights of 281 people from 1990 to 2011.
This issue disproportionately impacts African Americans in our state because of our staggering rates of mass incarceration and systemic racism in our criminal justice system. African Americans were eight percent of the state’s population in 2014, yet made up 29 percent of the state’s prison population. Jim Crow is clearly still alive and well in our jails and prisons – and as a result, in our voting booths.
We are making some progress. This past June, Assembly Bill 181 was signed into law. Next January, some formerly incarcerated people will be able to apply to have their voting rights restored instead of being permanently disenfranchised. While this is a step in the right direction, there are still too many barriers that stand in the way of returning citizens regaining their rights.
Again, I am reminded of my Grandfather Varise and our nation’s segregationist history that suppressed Black people’s access to our democratic process and prevented them to being treated as full citizens. Today’s oppressive Jim-Crow style policies that deny returning citizens the right to vote is shameful. When people have paid their debt to society, Nevada should allow them to actively participate in the democratic process and restore their voting rights.