By Donnell Drinks
Voting in our democracy carries different meanings for different people. For some Americans, voting is a proud exercise of a franchise they have had since this nation’s founding. For others, voting represents the culmination of generations of struggle to secure that franchise.
Whatever a person’s path, I believe that voting in our democracy gives everyone a sense of community; a sense of agency from that civic participation; a sense of realizing our obligations as citizens.
But the reality is, in America today, there are still far too many people who can’t or don’t exercise their franchise, people who feel hopeless or that their vote doesn’t matter. This is particularly true of people who are currently serving time in our nation’s prisons and jails. I know from firsthand experience. That’s why I want to share my story and urge all people who are in reentry from jails and prisons to understand just how important it is to vote.
When I was arrested at the age of 17, I experienced the ultimate feeling of hopelessness. Entering into an adult prison, especially as a teenager, I felt anxiety like I never had before. I felt hopeless as I was transported from prison to prison, handcuffed and shackled along with mostly Black and brown men, feeling the all-too-real parallels to slavery. I felt hopeless being treated as a less-than for more than 27 years, forced to eat poor quality food, living in conditions ranging from uncomfortable to horrendous, having no access to adequate health care, knowing you’re being financially exploited by the Department Of Corrections and private prison companies.
I felt hopeless having to deal with the deaths of loved ones even while being separated from my loved ones. I lost my mother, grandmother, father, little brother, aunt, and uncle while locked up.
Under such circumstances, it can be tempting to cut yourself off from your emotions, to embrace hopelessness because it’s easy to do so. Part of my journey has been from viewing voting and elections while incarcerated as just another reason to feel hopeless to realizing that moving people who were in my position to get out and vote is a major calling in my life.
Watching elections used to bother me because it was a reminder to me of something I never was able to do before my arrest because I was a minor. That feeling turned into shame as I started learning about the slim margins that some politicians would win by; I realized that every vote really does count. In elections involving politicians that ran on platforms that directly impact the incarcerated, my heart broke at my inability to participate.
Watching the historic election of our first Black president caused me so much pain, embarrassment and regret at not being able to vote. Not being able to share in the joint victory with my community felt awful. I couldn’t vote with them. I couldn’t share in the celebration of Obama’s victory that night.
After my release, I devoted myself to learning about public policy. I realized that every road leads to a policymaker. Every hurdle was controlled by a politician or part of a systemic practice. I then understood that in order to accomplish anything, I would have to organize and encourage people to register and vote. If we want to bring about change in our communities, whether reducing unemployment, improving schools, or stemming violence, and more, we have to vote.
For formerly incarcerated people like me, voting gives you a sense of freedom and power that you sat back for years and dreamed about. You don’t have to get approval to do it. It made me feel like I was finally in the driver seat of my life.
If you choose not to vote, you are abdicating your responsibility to the issues you care most about. No matter how disgruntled you may be with the system, it’s the one we have now. Only through voting and electing the right people can we change the things that are being done.
Voting is important to me because I finally feel as if I’m contributing to society. My voice is magnified because I can say when asked that I’m a registered voter who voted.
I cast my first vote at the age of 45 years old. The feeling of excitement and accomplishment was intoxicating. Voting made me feel whole.
Now, as a mentor to young men in my community, I recognize my obligation to share my story and how it informs me about the importance of voting. I teach that voting is not just a responsibility and obligation, but a chance for young people as well as people in reentry to be a part of this social fabric. Every civic-minded discussion I lead includes the topic of voting.
I look forward to continuing to work to educate people about both the importance of voting and how – for people who feel hopeless for whatever reason, whether they’re formerly incarcerated or not – voting is a way to feel whole, to hope that this simple act of civic engagement might win us a better world.
Donnell Drinks is the election protection coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania.