Before We Ask Who Wins In 2020, We Need To Ask Who Even Gets To Vote | Opinion

This month, dozens of governors across the country are being inaugurated—some for their first time, others after years in office. As they assume the mantle of the highest office in their states, they have a critical role to play: protect the right to vote.

Today, nearly six million people, mostly Black and Brown people, are blocked from voting by various forms of felony disenfranchisement. All but two states, Maine and Vermont, limit access to the polls for those with criminal justice involvement. And in Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia, some people are banned from voting for life. Recent estimates show that one in every 13 African Americans are denied the right to vote due to this injustice.

Felony disenfranchisement and other efforts to block formerly and currently incarcerated people from the polls are part of a long and ugly history of efforts to disenfranchise people of color. As we celebrate the life and work of Dr. King and others, we must remain mindful that mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement have eroded the civil rights gained through the blood, sweat, and tears of those who marched across this country in the '60s.

Fortunately, growing—and successful—movements across the country are working to right this injustice.

During the midterm elections, the people of Florida passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for over a million people with felony convictions. While the amendment unfortunately did not include everyone – currently incarcerated people and those convicted of certain crimes were excluded—it is a huge step forward in a state where elections are often won or lost by narrow margins.

In April, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced he was restoring voting rights to approximately 35,000 people with felony convictions who were out on parole. In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds recently proposed a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to those with felony convictions. In 2016, Maryland restored voting rights to people on probation and parole, and in 2017, Wyoming restored voting rights to people convicted of all nonviolent offenses.

These changes are not happening in a vacuum. Currently and formerly incarcerated people and their allies have been building a movement to regain the right to vote.

Access to the ballot has an enormously positive impact on those formerly disenfranchised. Every time I see movement on this issue, I'm reminded of my friends and colleagues, Larry White and Joseph “Jazz” Hayden.

Joseph “Jazz” Hayden was released from prison in 1997, after serving nine years in the New York Department of Corrections. Upon his release, he became an advocate for formerly incarcerated people, with a focus on voting rights. Jazz, like many of us, was particularly concerned about the disproportionate impact felony disenfranchisement had on Black and Latino communities. He dedicated his life to challenging this injustice, both at the grassroots and in the courts.

During the 2014 elections, my friend Larry, then 79, cast a ballot for the first time in his life. Not because he didn't care—in fact, Larry had volunteered for the last six years as a poll worker. But it was the first time in 50 years that he was no longer incarcerated or on parole.

But what is at stake is not just the rights of those entangled in the criminal legal system, but the very future of our democracy. For democracy can only truly function when those who are impacted by systems have access to the vote.

As we move toward the 2020 elections, much attention will be paid to who is on the ballot. But just as important is who has access to that ballot. We are calling on governors and legislatures across the country to do everything in their power to expand access to voting rights to everyone, regardless of their criminal convictions.

Voting is a civic duty and a basic right. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Lewis Webb, Jr. serves as Healing Justice Program Director for the American Friends Service Committee in New York.