VOICE volunteers (L to R) Kathleen Ryals, Tali Levy, Naima Jameson, Emily Swide, Jenny Brandt, and Rodney Brooks outside of Santa Rita Jail after registering people to vote. Credit: Courtesy of the VOICE team

There are roughly 50,000 Californians who will get to vote again or for the first time on Tuesday, thanks to Proposition 17, which restored voting rights to those on parole after it passed in November 2020. 

UC Berkeley law Professor Emily Zhang believes that many people impacted by Prop. 17 are unaware that they are newly eligible to vote. 

“A law changing can only do so much. There’s the second part, which is to make sure people know about the law,” Zhang said. 

They may not know, she said, because of the variation in voting laws state by state, circulation of outdated forms, and the government’s lack of communication around the shift in the law. 

In the absence of clear communication from the government, Zhang believes that public defenders come closest to the “gold standard” in their ability to convey trustworthy legal advice to people on parole.

“Having those credible sources to validate the law is essential,” Zhang said. 

But another way to increase awareness of voter eligibility for people on parole is to have more people voting inside jails, Zhang said.  While a large portion of people in California’s local jails has always been eligible to vote, Prop. 17 broadened that eligibility to include those serving time while on parole. 

Volunteers from the Alameda County Public Defender’s Office returned to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin in October and registered roughly 320 individuals to vote. It was their first time registering people in person since the beginning of the pandemic and the approval of Prop. 17. Santa Rita has a population of roughly 2,300 people.

Established in 2016, the Public Defender’s Office’s VOICE (Voter Outreach Increases Community Empowerment) program has registered over 1,500 people at Santa Rita, around a third of whom have registered since Prop. 17 passed. 

The program was founded by social worker Sascha Atkins-Loria, Deputy Public Defender Daniel Duvernay, and Executive Programs Coordinator Rodney Brooks. 

Brendon Woods, the county’s chief public defender, said, “A lot of people we serve are told frequently that they don’t matter, that they have no value. We’re coming in saying, ‘You have a voice and you count.’ Right now, success is measured by increasing awareness and getting people to register.” 

For Woods, success also means establishing polling in places like Santa Rita Jail and achieving massive participation in voting from people who are incarcerated and eligible. 

“We’re a far cry from that,” Woods said. 

Dean White, a program supervisor with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office, said the jail has always given those eligible the opportunity to vote. However, bringing in the Public Defender’s Office scaled registration. 

“We have it in our rulebook that says they can vote. I can advertise it. But when you hear it from a community member, maybe it resonates more. We’re just hitting them from all different angles,” White said. 

In an effort to combat disinformation and raise awareness around voter eligibility, VOICE introduced a new component to its program this year—a curriculum dedicated to voter education. 

Developed in partnership with UC Berkeley’s Possibility Lab and taught by teachers at Five Keys—the school at Santa Rita Jail—the curriculum includes modules on voter eligibility, voter disenfranchisement, how to change an address, and how to fill out and return a ballot. 

“Often we meet people in their 50s or 60s who, when I’m registering them, have told me this is the first time they will have ever voted,” said Atkins-Loria. 

Their work speaks to a larger voting education and awareness movement happening in local jails and state prisons across California, especially since Prop. 17 passed. 

Jesse Clyde Burleson, the in-custody program coordinator at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, participated in outreach during the Prop. 17 campaign. Now he plans to develop a voter-education curriculum for California state prisons so that people are prepared to vote once they are paroled. Burleson, 53, has voted twice since Prop. 17 passed. 

“Uniting your vote with other votes creates a force in the arena. There was a reason why we were disenfranchised—to keep us away from actual power. That’s the kind of education that’s missing,” Burleson said. 

John Lam, UC Berkeley Possibility Lab fellow and member of Asian Prisoner Support Committee, voted for the first.  time in 2021 after Prop 17 passed. Credit: Cayla Mihalovic

Possibility Lab fellow John Lam, 37, was paroled in 2019 after 16 years. According to Lam, even with organizations going into jails across California to help register people, various issues still arise, including ballot access due to mail delays, lack of publicity around registering and privacy while voting, and logistical issues with people frequently moving around. 

In some jails like Santa Rita, voter registration guides are not allowed inside because they contain staples, which qualify as a security risk. The alternative for information about what’s on the ballot comes through newspapers, television, or downloaded PDF voter guides on a tablet. However, tablet batteries frequently drain.

Lam helped advocate for Prop. 17 and voted for the first time in 2021. 

“It was incredible. I remember sharing it in a group chat with my other friends who were on parole. It was the first time that I got the opportunity to vote,” Lam said. “No matter how marginalized a person is in society, if they utilize their voice, anybody can affect change.” 

This story was co-published with Oakland North.