James Jeter stood in Hartford City Hall Tuesday morning holding a piece of paper he’d been fighting for since 2018. His application to register to vote had been accepted.
For the first time in his 41 years, he’d be able to cast a ballot.
Jeter, the co-director of Unlock the Vote, which seeks to expand access to the ballot box for the disenfranchised, spent 19 years and four months in prison. He will be on parole for more than another decade, which means that if it weren’t for a recent new law, he would have had to wait more than 10 years to vote.
Tuesday’s election marked the first general election in which people on parole in Connecticut could cast a ballot, the culmination of a yearlong effort to end felony disenfranchisement. Legislators passed the proposal — tucked into an 837-page budget implementer bill — in a special session days after the session ended.
Now, Jeter said, those on parole have political power to wield, to make sure their interests are heeded by elected officials.
“We have real issues, just like everyone else, that have been exacerbated by our incarceration and the traumas that come out of it,” said Jeter. “You can’t say that prior to this that we had representation. You might have had a comrade or an ally, but now we have representation.”
Connecticut’s laws on the intersection of voter eligibility and the criminal justice system are complicated. U.S. citizens whose crimes have not yet been adjudicated but who remain behind bars pretrial or who are serving misdemeanor sentences can vote, as can those on probation. But those serving sentences for felony convictions cannot.
The law change simplifies who is eligible to cast a ballot, said Gabe Rosenberg, spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office. It clarifies when a felony conviction bars you from being able to vote.
“Now if you’re standing in the registrars office, you know that you’re allowed to register, because you’re not incarcerated,” he said.
Advocates see the end of felony disenfranchisement as a racial justice issue. Everyone who is on parole has spent time in prison. About 43% of people in prison or jail as of Nov. 1 were Black, whereas only about 10% of state residents are Black.
It is not clear how many people on parole were eligible to vote Tuesday thanks to the new law. There were 3,347 people being supervised by Department of Correction parole officers as of Oct. 1. But only 707 were on a Connecticut parole, as opposed to being supervised in Connecticut on behalf of another state.
“There’s no way for us to know that today,” Rosenberg said Tuesday night, but individual voter history data will be available in January.
Hours before the polls closed, Jeter was hanging out with Clyde Meikle, a man whom Jeter knew from prison who got a sentence modification in January of this year. Meikle also voted for the first time on Tuesday. He spent 26 years behind bars and found it hard to put into words what it felt like to have his right to vote restored. When he sees a large group of men with similar experience as him — those who know what it’s like to spend years of their life in prison — show up to vote, then he’ll “feel like it’s an expression of power.”
Meikle thinks these men could inspire their families to turn out to vote, too. This could be key to inspiring large groups of people to participate in the election process, families who have felt shut out of it for years. Once that happens, Meikle said, he’ll feel like, “they participated in something that seemed impossible 20 or 30 years ago. That would be amazing.”
Jeter acknowledged the sweetness of voting Tuesday. But he said it’s just the first step.
“There’s a lot of work still to be done. This state has yet to see its best communities, its best outcomes, its best economic prosperity,” Jeter said. “This state has yet to see its best because there’s so many people locked out of its structure.”