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State officials discuss voting rights for incarcerated people

The California State Assembly Election Committee voted to elevate the proposal to the Appropriations Committee by a vote of 5 to 2.
ACA4 debate incarcerated voters
Posted at 4:03 PM, Apr 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-20 13:31:53-04

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (KERO) — There are more than 140,000 people incarcerated in California's state prisons. About 8,500 of them are in prisons in Kern County. These numbers are in addition to the populations of the 13 federal prisons across the state. Currently, none of these incarcerated people are allowed to vote under the state constitution. This has been California law since 1866.

An amendment to the state constitution called ACA 4 has now been proposed that would allow incarcerated people in state and federal prisons in California to vote in elections. The question at the center of the discussion: Is voting a right or a privilege?

Election Committee Chair and author of the proposed amendment, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan of Los Angeles, says that having voting rights connects those who are incarcerated to the larger community they will eventually return to. The more invested they are through voting, the more likely they will be to integrate back into society in a positive manner and not re-offend.

isaac bryan assemblymember
California Assemblymember from Los Angeles Isaac Bryan, author of ACA 4

Bryan also points to the rates of Black and Latino people who are incarcerated and argues the role one's community plays in these rates.

"We fought for voting rights, and voting rights are only rights if they are endowed to all citizens of our country, not just the ones who haven't grown up in communities that have been left out of the social contract, communities that have lower life expectancy, fewer schools, lower public health infrastructures," said Bryan.

Jay Hockley is a formerly incarcerated person who attended the meeting on behalf of the prisoner advocacy group Initiate Justice Action. He says voting after his release was an important step toward rejoining the wider community.

"That felt amazing," said Hockley. "It felt like getting citizenship back."

Hockley says he spent more than a decade incarcerated, and though he didn't talk much about that time, it's been 5 years since his release, and in that time he's built a family, bought a home, and is now in school earning his master's degree. He credits his success to community investment.

"I am a product of folks investing in me. A product of community spaces and having access to education," said Hockley.

Jay Hockley
Jay Hockley, advocate with Initiate Justice Action

Hockley also believes that the community is a better support resource for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people than any program offered by the prisons.

"The more folks who are participating in the system and who are invested in seeing the community you see around you thrive and survive," said Hockley. "The more folks we put on an island, we put into caste systems and act like we don't exist, then that is an investment we don't see as a community."

Many people showed up or called in to the meeting to express their support or opposition to the proposal. That division was also felt among the assemblymembers, with Vice Chair Tom Lackey from Palmdale arguing that enfranchising the incarcerated dismisses victims' rights.

"Prisoners should not be voting from their cells. I believe in the bipartisan way our body has been working together to reform our criminal justice system, like full reintegration and building valuable skills," said Lackey. "But voting from their cells is a step too far in the wrong direction because it completely dismisses the fact that they chose to commit a crime."

Tom Lackey assemblymember
California Assemblymember and Election Committee Vice Chair Tom Lackey of Palmdale

The hearing ended with a 5 to 2 vote in favor of advancing the proposed amendment. The matter now advances to the Committee on Appropriations. If that committee approves it, then the amendment goes to the House floor where it would need to be approved by at least two-thirds. If it passes in the house as well, it then goes to senate for approval. After the senate, if it continues to be approved, it will then be placed on the 2024 ballot for voters to decide.


According to The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that works to minimize imprisonment for youth and adults, laws in 48 states ban people with felony convictions from voting.

The group estimates 4.6 million Americans are not allowed to vote due to a felony conviction. That number translates to about 2 percent of the total eligible voting U.S. population.

Among the adult Black population, 1 in 19 people are disenfranchised due to felony conviction, a rate three and a half times higher than than among people who are not Black.