5 People Who Know What It’s Like To Be Blocked From The Ballot

We talk with people who can’t (or, until recently, couldn’t) vote in November.

Desmond Meade, Jack Vaile, Pamela Colon, Christine Swanson and Jacob Dennis have disenfranchisement in common.

By Avery Kleinman

When America selects its next president, many people will choose not to vote. Voter turnout dropped to a 20 year low in 2016. Only about 55 percent of eligible voters participated. But there are also many people who want to vote and who are directly affected by the president’s policies.

Desmond Meade lost his right to vote when he was convicted of a felony. He gained it back after Florida passed Amendment 4, which re-enfranchised those who’d completed their sentences. In some states, people with felony convictions are still not allowed to vote.

Jack Vaile lost his right to vote when his father became his legal guardian. Jack has cerebral palsy and communicates using an augmentative communication device. In many states, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who are under guardianships cannot vote.

Pamela Colon lost her right to vote when she moved from Illinois to the U.S. Virgin Islands. U.S. citizens living in territories, including Puerto Rico and Guam, cannot vote for president.

Christine Swanson is a lawful permanent resident of the United States. She cannot vote because she is not a U.S. citizen.

Jacob Dennis couldn’t vote in his state’s primaries because he was not yet 18 years old.

Together, they represent tens of millions of people who are living in America and pay taxes to the U.S. government. We profiled these people in our on-air series Blocked From The Ballot, then checked back in with them after the shows.

Desmond: Not being able to vote made me like a second-class citizen, I believe there’s no better indicator of citizenship than having the right to vote, to not have the option made me feel really less than and not part of society.

Jack: [It made me] frustrated, hurt and angry.

Pamela: It’s very oppressive. I’ve lost my ability to use my voice in any meaningful way. I can still express my opinions, but I can’t do the thing that would have the most impact on who would best represent me.

Christine: Being able to vote means being able to participate in our democracy. It means having a say in how my taxes are spent. The vote is also a way to try to drive forward policy decisions that I agree with.

Jacob: I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I don’t like Biden or Trump so I was upset I couldn’t actually vote for the candidate I wanted.

Desmond: The primary issues for me are issues that impact people with felony convictions. Those tend to be around criminal justice reform. Also the area of re-entry, or removing obstacles that people with felony convictions face after jail time.

Jack: Healthcare for all. Racism.

Pamela: Let’s start with character, I think everything flows from that. In terms of policy issues, I’m very concerned about health care. The income inequality gap and criminal justice, which is an oxymoron reform. Because I don’t think there is criminal justice. That ties into the income gap.

Christine: First and foremost, climate change. Additionally, funding for science, environmental protection, women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ+ rights, financial reform, health care.

Jacob: Medicare for all. Someone who’s willing to help fight for climate change and help us clean up the environment a little bit. On top of that, there’s LGBT equality.

Desmond: It makes it harder to address the issues specific to the African American community.

African Americans are disproportionately targeted in policing practices, so they’re disproportionately convicted of felony offenses, so they’ve disproportionately lost the right to vote.

Pamela: When something like the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act gets passed and everyone below $75,000 a year are supposed to get emergency funds, rather than it being sent directly to us it’s going to be sent to the local government, and then the local government will be responsible for setting up a distribution system, they’re going to have to mail those checks. All of that is going to be a delay. Our governor said that it’s anticipated that those checks will go out sometime in May. For people who have been laid off, they need the money now. I think if we had the right to vote this wouldn’t happen. It’s widespread.

Christine: Being unable to vote means I don’t have a say in how my taxes are spent, nor do I have a person or people who represent me in any level of politics. For those communities who have disenfranchised members, politicians have no way of knowing how to best serve these people. We don’t get a say at the ballot box, and generally, politicians aren’t as interested in hearing what non-voting constituents have to say, even when you take the time to call or write them.

Jacob: I think the issue with not letting people my age vote is politicians don’t really have a reason to look at things from my perspective. It just makes politicians focus on people our age from our parents’ point of view.

Desmond: One thing I know about disenfranchisement is that you see a broad cross section of people who are impacted by these policies. You could see people who are black, white, different levels of economic status. The people who are impacted reflect a diversity of ethnicities and experiences.

Pamela: I think we share the frustration of being disenfranchised and not feeling as though we have accountability. I was a political science major in college, and I remember from my class, revolutions happen when you have expectations that are not met and there is no way to express the frustrations of those unmet hopes and expectations. Revolutions start through lack of representation.

Christine: Many people who can’t vote care deeply about the issues facing Americans. They would like a say in how their taxes are spent and how their politicians respond to issues that the community is facing.

Jacob: A lot of people who can't vote are left-leaning voters, I noticed that seems to be a common theme. It’s kind of a fear of new ideas from the right, and on top of it, there’s an attitude that we’re not trustworthy.

Desmond: I would reiterate how valuable the right to vote is and how we honor that right by voting. Voting is the one time where it’s like the great equalizer, no matter how rich or poor you are, no matter where you come from or your ethnicity, when you vote you have just as much power as the richest man in the world. If our vote didn’t matter there wouldn’t be so many people trying to stop us.

Pamela: Make sure that all citizens are treated the same. If you can curtail some of my rights as a citizen, then someday it’ll be your rights that are curtailed. If you can do it to me someday they could do it to you too.

Christine: Research what is best for yourself and your family and ensure that the person you are voting will represent those interests. Also, while voting for president is important, local elections affect day-to-day life even more than the president does, so don’t neglect your local and state-level politics.

Jacob: I really hope people think about the future, not just now. People aren’t thinking ahead. We need to think about the economy long term, and think about what the world will look like 50 years from now.

Listen to Desmond, Jack, Pamela, Christine and Jacob tell their stories on 1A.

1A is the midday news show from @WAMU885 and @NPR. Find the podcast at npr.org/1a.

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