By NORA THOMPSON
Could you imagine having to pay $700 to register to vote?
No one would do it. Voting, a civil right available to most U.S. reidents, suddenly would become a luxury.
This is a devastating reality for 221,000 people in Arizona. Just as Manny Mejias said during the Restore Your Vote press conference on Oct. 3: It’s like bringing back the poll tax.
America has a long history of voter suppression. It’s unfortunately a racist system that we live under, especially when, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections, 60.9 percent of inmates are non-white.
I got involved with Restore Your Vote Arizona, a project of the Campaign Legal Center. It’s a two-month campaign that’s focused on helping people with prior felony convictions get their rights returned. It’s currently in two states, Nevada and Arizona, and four cities, Tucson, Phoenix, Reno and Las Vegas.
The difference between Arizona and other states is that Arizona gives people with felony convictions the runaround. We have some of the most complicated laws in the nation when it comes to rights restoration, and it’s the reason that we were chosen to have this campaign.
There are two kinds of rights restoration here: automatic and petitioning the court.
The only people that have their rights automatically restored have one felony and have paid their fines and fees, which is where $700 to vote comes in. These people are eligible to vote but the kicker is that they have to register, even if they were registered before they were charged, they need to re-register.
More often than not, the person doesn’t have a spare $100 lying around, and fines and fees can get ridiculous, into the thousands.
That’s where petitioning comes in. If the person has more than one conviction or they can’t pay their fines and fees, then they must petition the court. Which can be a daunting process to someone who isn’t familiar with the legal system or someone who had a bad experience with the courts.
The process begins with us finding out if they did prison time. If so, they’ll need to secure a certificate of absolute discharge, proving that their sentence is over. Then we send them to either to a pro-bono attorney that is working with campaign Legal Center, or we send them to a legal defense or rights restoration clinic.
It’s in the hands of the judge.
There’s something disgusting in someone’s civil rights being in the hands of a singular person.
“It’s harder but not impossible, I tell them,” because I want them to have faith in the process without unrealistic expectations.
It sometimes can be easy to see people with felony convictions as numbers or headlines, but at the end of the day they’re people, people who made a mistake, sometimes many years ago. But they are trying to get back into normal life and want to be full citizens again.
I told a man that I had been working with for the better part of a month that I would stop bothering him now because he was registered. and he told me
“No, thank you for bothering me; I wouldn’t have done it without you guys.”
For more information, go to restoreyourvote.org.