James Jeter, now a Trinity College student, said his mother and grandmothers paid thousands of dollars in phone calls to stay in touch with him when he was in prison for 19 years.
James Jeter, left Kathleen Megan / CT Mirror

Perfecting American democracy demands ending voting bans for persons with felony convictions. Denying people on parole – denying me – the right to vote and have a say, is the denial of my citizenship.

I was born on this soil, but this ban says I am a noncitizen. I dwell in a space of civic death, a space void of voice, and full of suppressed inherent rights. Regardless of every stride that I take: a college student, a nonprofit director, a husband, a father, and yet I am somehow, at all times, found lacking of social and civic value.

Connecticut denies the right to vote to the second highest percentage of its citizens than any other state in the northeast. Driving its regionally high rate is the state’s exclusion of people on parole. Connecticut is the only state in the northeast to extend voting restrictions beyond prison.

Senate Bill 5, which would expand voting rights to people on parole, just passed the Senate. House lawmakers can take the next step by authorizing bill, too.

The Sentencing Project found that excluding people on parole supervision from voting disenfranchises an additional 4,510 people and makes Connecticut an outlier. Earlier this year, New York lawmakers restored voting rights to persons on parole. In 2020, California voters passed a ballot initiative restoring the right to vote for Californians on parole.

Connecticut disenfranchises roughly the same number of people as Massachusetts, despite having only around half its population.

Restoring voting rights to Connecticut’s electorate will affect the course of the state for years and can also strengthen public safety; research suggests that re-enfranchisement can facilitate successful re-entry and reduce recidivism.

University of Minnesota’s Christopher Uggen and New York University’s Jeff Manza find that among people with a prior arrest, there are “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent  arrest, incarceration and self-reported criminal  behavior.”

Disenfranchisement laws trace back to the nation’s founding. Initially, white, male property holders granted themselves the right to vote, excluding women, African Americans, poor people, those who couldn’t read, and those with felony convictions. Most of those exclusions have been overturned, leaving felony disenfranchisement as the key remaining obstacle to full participation in society.

The effect of these policies is distorted by the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Black imprisonment is affected by racial profiling, skewed enforcement in the war on drugs, and socioeconomic disparities that affect access to high-quality defense attorneys. Nearly 70% of people on parole in Connecticut are Black or Latinx, even though the state is nearly 66% white. High felony disenfranchisement rates among communities of color can also deter household and community members from voting due to an overall decline in electoral engagement and ambiguities in eligibility, further diluting their political representation.

Why should we permit people on parole the vote? In part, this is what democracy is all about. I should know. Civic engagement is a strong way to lower recidivism. Voting rights also supports victims by helping people in prison return to their communities as full citizens.

I am doing my part. Connecticut lawmakers must do their part and restore voting rights to justice involved citizens who are not incarcerated.

James Jeter is a formerly incarcerated community leader who helps lead Connecticut’s Full Citizen Coalition to Unlock the Vote.