Rene Quinonez reclaimed a piece of his dignity on Monday — and all he had to do was register to vote. Just weeks ago, the former drug dealer and current executive director of Mission District-based nonprofit HOMEY was unsure if he would ever have that chance.
“Nobody ever told me,” said Quinonez, who spent a year in federal prison and thought he could not vote because he is still serving probation. “They were very clear about telling me when I had lost the right to vote, but I didn’t realize I had regained it until I started figuring it out on my own.”
Like Quinonez, many convicted felons throughout Northern California are unaware of their voting rights, and misinformation from probation officers, sheriffs’ departments and elections officials have contributed to their ignorance, according to the report “Making Every Vote Count: Reforming Felony Disenfranchisement Policies and Practices in California,” released last month by the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Not knowing whether or not you can vote – it feels like you don’t have part of your humanity,” Quinonez said.
In California, parolees cannot vote, but probationers who are off parole can. Prison inmates cannot vote, but those held in jails can. But for many of the approximately 9,500 probationers and parolees in San Francisco — about 1.2 percent of the city’s population — those distinctions remain unclear.
“The information hasn’t trickled down,” said Tandrea Madison, a member of All of Us or None, a nonprofit that fights for the advancement of current and formerly incarcerated people. “There are a whole lot of people who can vote, but they think they can’t.”
While it is unclear how many Mission residents are disenfranchised — either legally or through lack of information — Quinonez said that he knows few people who fully understand the law. Latinos are disproportionately affected, as they constitute 36.5 percent of the disenfranchised in California, while accounting for only 19 percent of the state’s general population.
San Francisco County, however, does better than its neighbors. The ACLU report said that San Francisco’s probation office was the only one of the 48 offices surveyed to have an official policy on advising clients of their voting rights. A visit to the office revealed evidence of that stance.
Bilingual flyers, provided by the ACLU, adorned the probation office door, and similar pamphlets lined the reception desk in the public defender’s office across the hall. One piece of literature said simply, “On probation? Off parole? You can vote.” The office also had voter registration forms on-site.
“We still have many people who aren’t informed of their rights,” said Jessica Flintoft, program coordinator for the Safe Communities Reentry Council at the Office of the Public Defender. “We’re dealing with a group of people who actually don’t have some rights, so we have to be really clear about informing them of the rights they do have. There’s not much room for ambiguity.”
Flintoft said that her office places a high priority on informing clients of their rights, and she pointed to efforts by the Prisoner Legal Services office to register between 400 and 600 individuals in the county jail. The daily population there hovers around 2,000. But despite these efforts, misinformation persists.
The best path to eradicating the problem is through the courts, Flintoft said. Because everyone who is incarcerated passes directly through the court system, everyone would know their rights if they were informed during that process, she said. If clearly informed at sentencing of the rights they were losing and the rights they could regain, many felons would avoid confusion when they reached probation.
All of Us or None member Linda Brown, herself a former prisoner, suggested that a booklet be distributed to all inmates, clearly describing their rights.
Flintoft expressed understanding for those who think the system is rigged against them, and she thinks officials like herself are responsible for correcting misconceptions. She also welcomed the input — critical as it may be — from groups like the ACLU and All of Us or None, and she sees their efforts as helpful to the cause.
While San Francisco has failed to adequately inform felons of their rights, the county’s progressive leanings and robust resources have pushed it to do better than surrounding counties, officials and volunteers said.
Only 27 percent of the Northern California offices surveyed this summer by the ACLU accurately answered the question “Can I vote if I am on probation?” However, that was a 62.5 percent increase over the number that answered the same question correctly in 2005.
Quinonez and others said that this is a particularly important election for those who have been incarcerated. He called Proposition 6, which would increase sentences for certain gang-related activities, “scary and unfair.” Madison said her organization also opposes Proposition 9, which would reduce the number of probation hearings to which prisoners are entitled and increase the number of people who can attend and testify on behalf of the victim at parole hearings.
For Brown, exercising the right to vote means taking part in history.
“We are going to have either the first black president of the first woman vice president,” she said. “Women and people of color — we all want to be a part of this election. We should all have the right to be a part of this election.”
While improving communication will automatically enfranchise many who can already legally vote, everyone interviewed for this article — including Flintoft — said prisoners and parolees should also be able to vote in California. Currently, Maine and Vermont are the only states that do not at least temporarily revoke felons’ voting rights.
“This is one more way that people like me — who have gotten in trouble — continue to be charged,” Brown said. “We’ve done time. We’ve done restitution. When do we stop paying? Why do we keep paying for what we’ve done?”