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How I fought to restore my voting rights — and why we should more quickly restore others'

Jason Marque Sole

I paid my debt to society over the years spent in prison. On probation, walking out the doors for the final time meant society and I were even. Or so I thought. New doors to housing discrimination and job discrimination opened in their place. Then I would learn that I couldn’t vote either.

When you’re released on probation, the clock starts as soon as the gate opens. Tick. Tock. You have 60 days to land a job and housing or return to a cell.

As the 2008 election started heating up and a black man who organized on the southside of my hometown of Chicago began to rise, the thought of not voting on Election Day began to eat at me. Watching the debates. Seeing the early poll numbers. Talking to my family on the phone about the possibility that a black man might actually become president.

I wasn’t one of the almost 70 million people who voted for Barack Obama. Or one of the 65 million who voted to keep him there four years later. I watched countless mayors and elected officials begin and end terms. All while I remained a spectator to our most democratic of processes. How could this be?

Because I’ve done wrong. And served my time. But I forgot that a felony conviction means a life sentence as a second-class citizen. Why was I so naïve?

I made good on my “second chance.” I am a homeowner. A father. A professor. An activist, speaker, volunteer. But most important, I am a taxpayer. Isn’t that what society wants? What else should I do to pay my debt?

“No taxation without representation.” Since my voting rights are terminated until I finish my Draconian 20-year probationary sentence (which ends in July of 2026), does that mean I’m tax exempt? Where’s this notion of fairness that the government speaks so highly of?

As a disenfranchised citizen, election days are the worst. I watch the excitement of voters, hoping they don’t ask me anything. “Hey Jason, did you make it to the polls yet?” Do I lie? Or do I share that I’ve made a few poor choices and therefore I’m not able to participate in the political process?

“Daddy, where’s your sticker?” Do I lie to my daughters? They can’t imagine their daddy committing a crime. Do I tell them before they need to know and risk damaging their belief in me?

Candidly, it’s daunting to be prevented from full engagement with my community due to modernized Jim Crow laws. My debt should’ve been paid when I was shackled from wrist-to-waist-to-ankles in transport. My debt should’ve been paid when I slaved for $0.25 an hour for months on end. My debt should’ve been paid when I spent 23 hours in solitary confinement. But it wasn’t. I had to reclaim my second-class citizenship by watching “good people” vote while I experienced Solitary Confinement 2.0.

I grew weary of experiencing the injustices inflicted upon returnees and started sharing my story. I embraced the scarlet F(elon) on election days so others could learn about disenfranchisement. This wasn’t easy for me, and the criticism hurled my way was immense. You do the crime, you do the time! You should’ve thought about your rights when you were selling drugs!

I read somewhere that children who don’t see their parents vote are less likely to vote themselves. I couldn’t let that be my girls. I couldn’t allow my mistakes to plague my children.

My commitment to restore my vote pushed me to search out loopholes in the system. Through extensive research, I learned that convicted felons can apply for something called “early termination of probation.” That’s it! I put the onus on my judge to completely remove my chains. On Jan. 5, 2016, with tears in my eyes, I began to pour my heart out:

To the Honorable Judge Elizabeth Martin:

I am writing this letter to seek an early termination of probation. In 2006, I was grateful to receive the 20-year probationary term, however, after completing nearly half of the term without any new criminal charges, I want to move forward with my dreams and aspirations.

Since 2006, I have accomplished a number of things. I am a proud husband and father of two beautiful daughters; I have completed a bachelors and masters in criminal justice and have completed my dissertation for my terminal degree; I am a criminal justice educator at Metropolitan State University as well as Hamline University; I am a national trainer, speaker, and consultant; and I am helping offenders and victims learn from my mistakes. I have made good on my second chance and want to terminate my probation so that I can enjoy more of life’s opportunities.

While I am sincerely remorseful for my actions, I am seeking to end my probationary term so that I can contribute more to society. First, I have been offered job assignments in other countries but due to my status, I can’t obtain a passport.  Secondly, I want to be able to vote and eventually run for the school board in my district. I have accomplished many things in a short amount of time but I feel there is much more for me to do. I hope you can find it in your heart to end my probation so that I can transcend my felony convictions and move on with my life.

I anguished for months waiting for her response. On March 23, 2016, I received the reply:

IT IS ORDERED that Jason Marque Sole is hereby discharged from probation, restored to all civil rights and full citizenship with full right to vote and hold office as if said conviction had not taken place.

Freedom. Liberation. Justice.

But still I wonder: Why isn’t there someone consistently committed to providing relief to probationers? Is that part of the game? Lock up people of color (particularly black people) so they can’t ever have political power? Could that be why seven states have lifetime bans on voting for people who’ve been convicted of crimes? With a system designed to oppress, how many people who are denied their rights to vote are innocent? Five percent? Ten percent? More?

Those of us who are poor and disenfranchised are consistently denied access to power. If the Constitution is committed to creating fairness and equality for ALL, how could I be denied voting rights when I pay taxes? Isn’t that criminal in nature?

While I am grateful I’m able to cast a ballot, there are 51,000 Minnesotans who will not be allowed to access this privilege on Nov. 7. It’s very difficult for me to revel in my legal status as a voter while others just like me are sidelined.

Statistics show that returnees who are civically engaged are less likely to reoffend. We all claim to want safer societies but refuse to take even the simplest of steps to make it a reality. 

I now have that coveted sticker that proclaims, “I voted.” I’ve begun to show others how to end their ridiculous probationary sentences so they can wear one too. But where are the legislators who seek to uphold the values listed in the Constitution?

I disgraced my mother, my community, and myself when I committed my crimes. The Constitution of the United States continues to disgrace all Americans by taking taxes from the same citizens it simultaneously denies the right to vote.

Jason Marque Sole is a community leader, a professor, an author, and a father living — and voting — in Minnesota.

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Comments (21)

Beautifully written

I'm starting an "up to" 10 year probation right now and I could relate to this very well. Thank you for highlighting what is an important issue. Way to go on moving beyond your circumstances to achieve what you have!

If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime!!

That includes probation. I think it’s great you turned your life around, got a job and paid taxes. Congratulations and continued success. Unfortunately for us, the tax payers, we paid for the police to arrest you, paid for the DA to prosecute you, paid for you to go to prison, paid workers to watch over you while in prison and finally pay a parole officer to watch you when released. You sir cost the State of Minnesota a lot of money and not being eligible to vote was part of your punishment.. I don’t feel sorry for you one bit, no one forced you into committing a crime. I do however wish you the best of luck and hope you enjoy your new life.

Nonsensical

How is this a reason why someone should not be able to vote? There is no justification for rescinding someone's right to vote as punishment. It is completely inhumane and illogical.

Why is this a race issue?

Why is this a race issue? Every felon no matter what his race faces the same problem. It is obvious there is discrimination to be found in the criminal justice system but this isn't an example of it. It is great that you have turned your life around and because of that the judge restored your full rights. You can't say the system did not work for you. You would be a great role model if you quit trying to blame others for a problem of your own making.

It needs to be acknowldeged or it can't be fixed

You are correct that every felon faces this, but MN is unfortunately a leader in racial disparity within our criminal justice system and that's how discrimination is a factor. Especially for less serious crimes like drug offenses. I didn't interpret at all that the author was blaming others but rather floating the question of whether this could be part of a modernized Jim Crow.

Perhaps check out section 4 - Drivers of Disparity here:
http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/color-of-justice-racial-an...

That being said, this was a good article and an important message to get into the public conversation, thanks Jason.

Leave taxation out of it

I am 100% supportive of changing Minnesota law so that only those felons who are in prison are deprived of their voting rights. However, that doesn't make all arguments in favor of that conclusion equally valid. The one about "no taxations without representation" is a real weak point of this op-ed. I've heard that exact same argument used by folks who pay property tax in multiple jurisdictions to support the idea that they ought to be able to vote on local issues in each of them. I've heard it raised to question why non-citizens who pay taxes can't vote. It is a catchy slogan, but it has nothing to do with how the law actually works. Taxation and voting are two totally different things. One can vote without paying taxes, and one can pay taxes without voting. Voting rights ought to be restored upon release from prison, even for those felons who don't earn enough to pay taxes.

Thank You.

Great story, Jason. You are truly someone to look up to.

A few years ago, I volunteered on a campaign that attempted to get out the black vote. It was a failure because voting is not a pillar of black culture, partially because the desire to vote is rarely talked about by black community leaders like yourself. There are plenty of black ‘leaders’ ready to protest others’ behaviors, but when it comes to leading the black community forward, few can be found.

I hope your story and your desire to vote will rub off on those who are not inclined to vote, especially in these off-election years.

So unfortunate

This is a very, very unfortunate truth, at least in this state. It might not be a fact that spans all states, but if you look at the voter participation in the last several elections, it's clear that the black community needs to exercise their franchise much more than current levels. There was a surge in participation when Obama was running, so it's possible to be more engaged. And politicians are afraid of that happening. Look at the "voter fraud" laws they're trying to enact based on pretty much a non-issue. But the laws disproportionately hit minorities, and I believe that's exactly what's intended.

Reenfranchisement should not be automatic

The right to vote can be restored but only after the felon has shown he has turned over a new leaf—not automatically on the day he walks out of prison. After all, if you are not willing to follow the law then you should not have a role in making the law which is what you do when you vote. And the unfortunate fact is that most felons who walk out of prison will return.

Voting is a right, not a privilege

"The Congress finds that the right of citizens of the United States to vote is a fundamental right." - National Voter Registration Act of 1993

There are plenty of people

There are plenty of people who don’t have voting rights, for example children… and they are citizens.

Valid Reasons

There are valid reasons why children cannot vote: 1) their parents could easily force them to vote for the parents' preferred candidates, 2) children do not possess the requisite maturity to make major life decisions on their own.

People who are subject to guardianship for mental incapacity do not possess the right to vote for the same reasons, 1) their guardians could compel them to vote a certain way, 2) they lack capacity to make life decisions.

Neither of these apply to felons or ex-cons. I often see the argument that they displayed "poor judgment" and therefore should not be allowed to vote. Unfortunately, if displaying poor judgment was a disqualifier for the franchise, 99% of Americans would be disenfranchised for any number of infractions. I chose to go to college for a liberal arts degree and racked up 100k in debt! That was some pretty poor judgment on my part. Ought my right to vote be restricted?

The author correctly points out the real reason for doing this: to disenfranchise minority racial groups who are the target of law enforcement and to disenfranchise the poor in general. Law enforcement serves three purposes in this country: 1) terrorizing minority communities, 2) reinforcing the cycle of poverty through disenfranchisement and other social punishments (e.g. slave labor, inability to get jobs or credit), and 3) preserving the property and safety of the wealthy classes.

Practically all people may be

Practically all people may be subject to strong influence in voting process at some point or another: gang members is just one example but it may be also the case in some marriages or at work. On the other hand, 16- or 17-year-olds are as likely to vote the opposite of their parents as the same. So this leaves only one valid reason: not being capable of making mature and reasonable decisions. And yes, committing a crime is showing poor judgment…

Due Process

"Strong influence" is not the same thing as force or as a guardian dominating or threatening an incompetent person in their charge. Incompetent people don't just show "poor judgment," they have a proveable inability to make life decisions or to distinguish right from wrong. There are some criminals who you could show that is true for, but the number of criminals who claim innocence or are exonerated due to mental incapacity is vanishingly small. So, no, they are not and should not be the same thing.

Showing poor judgment is not a valid reason to restrict the franchise. Full stop.

“"Strong influence" is not

“"Strong influence" is not the same thing as force.” A gang leader can easily force his member to do whatever he wants, including voting certain way. A boss can force his underling. No difference here… On the other hand, what about 17-year olds – can they distinguish right from wrong? And science shows that brain does not fully mature for critical thinking until about 25… So don’t you think that people who break the laws should not be permitted to take part, even indirectly, in writing those laws?

Maybe because of racial discrimination?

Why is this a race issue? Maybe because the criminal justice system discriminates against people who are poor and that a disproportionate number of poor people are black?

There are obvious forms of discrimination, like imposing harsher prison sentences for crimes like crack possession than for cocaine possession. Same drug basically but whites convicted usually get probation while blacks go to prison. Then there's representation. Poor people can't afford legal representation and public defenders are too overstretched to provide the best defense to all who are charged. Most of the "street crimes" result in convictions because of inadequate defense and plea bargains. "White collar crimes" are even condoned and tolerated. How many bankers went to prison for the grand theft bank robbery that went down in 2008? Does anybody really dispute that black men are stopped and harassed by police for "driving while black"? But no, this has nothing to do with race.

But the subject here is a separate civil right. Mr. Sole raises the question: why is denial of the right to vote part of the punishment at all? What does that have to do with rehabilitation or any other goal of criminal punishment? Especially, as he says, in the seven states where conviction of a crime means a lifetime ban on the right to vote? I saw a play about ten years ago about this subject entitled "The Last Time I Voted Was In Third Grade". It was a play based on a true story about a man meeting black friend from third grade who told him the last time he voted was in third grade for class president. The black friend had been convicted in Ohio of marijuana possession, so he could never vote again, even when he moved to Minnesota.

I think Mr. Sole is right to wonder whether this is not just another form of modern Jim Crow racism. Especially after witnessing all the monkeying around with voting rights in the past 17 years, e.g. purging of voter lists to remove "felons" who turn out to be nonfelons and are removed by mistake, as in Florida in the 2000 election and in more recent years in Ohio and other states. Or the "voter ID laws". The point is to disenfranchise citizens and take away democracy. One doesn't lose one's citizenship for being convicted of a crime. Why should the right to vote which is a fundamental right be treated any differently by separating it from citizenship?

“Why is this a race issue?

“Why is this a race issue? Maybe because the criminal justice system discriminates against people who are poor and that a disproportionate number of poor people are black?” So it is not a race but a socio-economic issue – race correlation is just a coincidence.

“Does anybody really dispute that black men are stopped and harassed by police for "driving while black"?” Of course, and a lot…

“why is denial of the right to vote part of the punishment at all?” It’s not a punishment at all (kids cannot vote – and not because they are punished). People who used the wrong judgment and committed a crime cannot be trusted to use their judgment for voting. Not for life, though, but until they show that they have been rehabilitated which is why Mr. Sole’s voting rights were rightfully restored.

Judgment

The right to vote cannot and should not be restricted for showing "bad judgment." Plenty of people with awful judgment are allowed to vote all the time. If that wasn't true, we wouldn't have President Trump!!

It is completely anti-democratic to restrict anyone's right to vote unless they are proven by a court of law to lack the mental capacity to vote due to specific mental illness or competence. Children can't vote because they could be forced to vote a certain way by their parents and they can't make life decisions for themselves. Same goes for those under guardianship.

Felons may have committed crimes for perfectly logical reasons, like needing money, and are not by definition incapable of making life decisions.

The law needs to be changed. Disenfranchisement for crimes is an abomination in a democracy.

Sometimes I wish...

that voting could be restricted to those with good judgement. But that's not how it works, nor should it. There are lots of people with poor judgement who retain the right to vote, simply for not committing the "wrong" crime.

So how about some kind of

So how about some kind of test?

Not entirely

Part of it is socioeconomic. But a measurable portion is race. See the example above about disparities in sentences between crack and cocaine. Same drug, different sentences. And it's not just because people with cocaine "get off" on longer sentences. The longer sentences are built into the charges for possession of crack, but not cocaine. It seems that the only real explanation is who might be in possession of crack vs. cocaine.