Local action groups, community leaders and business owners gathered Tuesday in the parking lot in front of Soul Foo Young restaurant in Las Vegas to celebrate the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act being signed into law. Considered a culminating point of the Civil Rights movement, the Voting Rights Act prohibited any U.S. jurisdiction from implementing discriminatory prerequisites to voting.
Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, one of the hosts of the voting rights party, points out that limiting voting access to formerly incarcerated individuals is yet another discriminatory practice.
Hundreds of Southern Nevadans are in jail simply because they have accumulated fines and cannot afford to make bail. These prisoners, as well as individuals with misdemeanors and unconvicted charges, are legally eligible to vote. But being eligible means nothing without being able to register and obtain a ballot.
In May, the passage of Assembly Bill 431 broke down one barrier to access by ensuring that voting rights of formerly incarcerated Nevadans—approximately 77,000 individuals currently—are automatically restored once they are released from prison. Rather than having to petition or take extra steps to reinstate the right to vote, formerly incarcerated people have to simply register to be able to participate in their constitutional right.
The bill marks a milestone in a state where the overall incarceration rate is 15 percent higher than the national average, according to Crime and Justice Institute’s 2018 study. According to the August 4 fact sheet from the Nevada Department of Corrections, Nevada’s prison population is an estimated 13,368 people. Within this population, African Americans are overrepresented, composing 31 percent of people imprisoned in the state while composing only 8 percent of Nevada’s total population.
“It is monumental that they restored votes for ex-felons,” Kenneth Dorsey said at the event on Tuesday. “I am an ex-felon, so it’s a big thing for me to get out and register and prepare to vote. It’s a right that my ancestors fought for. Now, they have a voice.”
After Dorsey was released from prison in 2013, he and his wife founded Planet Mike Earth Youth Organization to empower youth in a system where the cards seem stacked against them. Dorsey’s and other community organizations focus on educating and training their own communities to turn the tide of disenfranchisement.
“Formerly incarcerated people will no longer be in the background. We will be front and center leading this work,” said Leslie Turner, leader organizer for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), “When we say directly impacted people will lead, this is what we mean. We’ve lived it. We’re not just up here talking,” referring to her and many attendees’ experiences of being incarcerated.
Also in attendance on Tuesday was a representative from Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s office, who submitted a statement the following day regarding discriminatory voting practices and a new voter base of formerly incarcerated constituents: “Senator Warren supports ending cash bail, getting rid of discriminatory and restrictive voting ID laws, and expanding voting rights for more Americans, including formerly incarcerated people.”
By the end of the evening, more than 50 attendees—41 of which were formerly incarcerated—registered to vote, each one raising applause and cheering from the crowd. “I only hoped for ten,” said Artisha Hall, owner of Soul Foo Young restaurant. “I believe [this new law] is important because it gives a different demographic that politicians have to speak to and for, and votes that they have to be concerned with that they weren’t concerned with before,” Hall said.
In closing remarks, Turner emphasized, “Those closest to the problem are closest to the solution but furthest from power. We need to change that. We need to take a seat at the table and make sure people know we are not just stories to be told. We are not just testimonies. We are actually leading on work, we are writing policy, we are changing the way laws impact our communities.”