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Jason Sole “How I fought to restore my voting rights — and why we should more quickly restore others”

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Photo Credit: Jason Marque Sole

I paid my debt to society over the years spent in prison. On probation, walking out the doors for the final time meant society and I were even. Or so I thought. New doors to housing discrimination and job discrimination opened in their place. Then I would learn that I couldn’t vote either.

When you’re released on probation, the clock starts as soon as the gate opens. Tick. Tock. You have 60 days to land a job and housing or return to a cell.

As the 2008 election started heating up and a black man who organized on the southside of my hometown of Chicago began to rise, the thought of not voting on Election Day began to eat at me. Watching the debates. Seeing the early poll numbers. Talking to my family on the phone about the possibility that a black man might actually become president.

I wasn’t one of the almost 70 million people who voted for Barack Obama. Or one of the 65 million who voted to keep him there four years later. I watched countless mayors and elected officials begin and end terms. All while I remained a spectator to our most democratic of processes. How could this be?

Because I’ve done wrong. And served my time. But I forgot that a felony conviction means a life sentence as a second-class citizen. Why was I so naïve?

I made good on my “second chance.” I am a homeowner. A father. A professor. An activist, speaker, volunteer. But most important, I am a taxpayer. Isn’t that what society wants? What else should I do to pay my debt?

“No taxation without representation.” Since my voting rights are terminated until I finish my Draconian 20-year probationary sentence (which ends in July of 2026), does that mean I’m tax exempt? Where’s this notion of fairness that the government speaks so highly of?

As a disenfranchised citizen, election days are the worst. I watch the excitement of voters, hoping they don’t ask me anything. “Hey Jason, did you make it to the polls yet?” Do I lie? Or do I share that I’ve made a few poor choices and therefore I’m not able to participate in the political process?

“Daddy, where’s your sticker?” Do I lie to my daughters? They can’t imagine their daddy committing a crime. Do I tell them before they need to know and risk damaging their belief in me?

Candidly, it’s daunting to be prevented from full engagement with my community due to modernized Jim Crow laws. My debt should’ve been paid when I was shackled from wrist-to-waist-to-ankles in transport. My debt should’ve been paid when I slaved for $0.25 an hour for months on end. My debt should’ve been paid when I spent 23 hours in solitary confinement. But it wasn’t. I had to reclaim my second-class citizenship by watching “good people” vote while I experienced Solitary Confinement 2.0.

I grew weary of experiencing the injustices inflicted upon returnees and started sharing my story. I embraced the scarlet F(elon) on election days so others could learn about disenfranchisement. This wasn’t easy for me, and the criticism hurled my way was immense. You do the crime, you do the time! You should’ve thought about your rights when you were selling drugs!

I read somewhere that children who don’t see their parents vote are less likely to vote themselves. I couldn’t let that be my girls. I couldn’t allow my mistakes to plague my children.

My commitment to restore my vote pushed me to search out loopholes in the system. Through extensive research, I learned that convicted felons can apply for something called “early termination of probation.” That’s it! I put the onus on my judge to completely remove my chains. On Jan. 5, 2016, with tears in my eyes, I began to pour my heart out:

To the Honorable Judge Elizabeth Martin:

I am writing this letter to seek an early termination of probation. In 2006, I was grateful to receive the 20-year probationary term, however, after completing nearly half of the term without any new criminal charges, I want to move forward with my dreams and aspirations.

Since 2006, I have accomplished a number of things. I am a proud husband and father of two beautiful daughters; I have completed a bachelors and masters in criminal justice and have completed my dissertation for my terminal degree; I am a criminal justice educator at Metropolitan State University as well as Hamline University; I am a national trainer, speaker, and consultant; and I am helping offenders and victims learn from my mistakes. I have made good on my second chance and want to terminate my probation so that I can enjoy more of life’s opportunities.

While I am sincerely remorseful for my actions, I am seeking to end my probationary term so that I can contribute more to society. First, I have been offered job assignments in other countries but due to my status, I can’t obtain a passport.  Secondly, I want to be able to vote and eventually run for the school board in my district. I have accomplished many things in a short amount of time but I feel there is much more for me to do. I hope you can find it in your heart to end my probation so that I can transcend my felony convictions and move on with my life.

I anguished for months waiting for her response. On March 23, 2016, I received the reply:

IT IS ORDERED that Jason Marque Sole is hereby discharged from probation, restored to all civil rights and full citizenship with full right to vote and hold office as if said conviction had not taken place.

Freedom. Liberation. Justice.

But still I wonder: Why isn’t there someone consistently committed to providing relief to probationers? Is that part of the game? Lock up people of color (particularly black people) so they can’t ever have political power? Could that be why seven states have lifetime bans on voting for people who’ve been convicted of crimes? With a system designed to oppress, how many people who are denied their rights to vote are innocent? Five percent? Ten percent? More?

Those of us who are poor and disenfranchised are consistently denied access to power. If the Constitution is committed to creating fairness and equality for ALL, how could I be denied voting rights when I pay taxes? Isn’t that criminal in nature?

While I am grateful I’m able to cast a ballot, there are 51,000 Minnesotans who will not be allowed to access this privilege on Nov. 7. It’s very difficult for me to revel in my legal status as a voter while others just like me are sidelined.

Statistics show that returnees who are civically engaged are less likely to reoffend. We all claim to want safer societies but refuse to take even the simplest of steps to make it a reality.

I now have that coveted sticker that proclaims, “I voted.” I’ve begun to show others how to end their ridiculous probationary sentences so they can wear one too. But where are the legislators who seek to uphold the values listed in the Constitution?

I disgraced my mother, my community, and myself when I committed my crimes. The Constitution of the United States continues to disgrace all Americans by taking taxes from the same citizens it simultaneously denies the right to vote.

Jason Marque Sole is a community leader, a professor, an author, and a father living — and voting — in Minnesota.

Restore the Vote Action During the Legislative Break

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Keeping voting rights restoration in the forefront of legislator’s minds is important, even if we don’t pass a bill this session. An opportunity to do this, especially for those outside the Metro, is during the Legislature’s spring break the week of April 10th when they are back in their districts. We need your help to keep this issue alive, please ask your constituencies to ask their legislators for an in-district meeting on voting restoration. Here is a message you can use:

51,000 Minnesotans living in our communities will be prohibited from taking the positive step of voting in upcoming elections because of their felony conviction. We can’t let up on letting legislators know why changing this situation is so important. The upcoming legislative break is a perfect opportunity for you to connect with your legislators.

Would you be willing to meet with your legislator about voting rights restoration during break when they are back in your district? All you need to do is call their office and ask for a meeting in their district during the break week of April 10th. Don’t know who your legislator is? Who Represents Me? Be sure to contact your State Representative and Senator (not US Representative or Senators). If you have scheduled a meeting then fill out this form: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Zg3LDTEgBf7RLhgH-dD7vuSa7O33ClxWEpKdIMHqyNs/edit?usp=sharing to let others know in case they would like to join you at the meeting. If you are not sure how to proceed, send an email to Mark Haase at mahaase@gmail.com with your contact information and we’ll follow up to help with this process. Please invite others to attend the meeting with you as well.

Attached below are three resourceful documents:

Legislative Update 2017

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BILL INTRODUCED!

A bipartisan voting restoration bill was recently introduced in the Minnesota House –

Representatives Dehn, R.; Hertaus; Zerwas; McDonald; Moran; Omar; Maye Quade; Mariani; Cornish; Lee; Allen; Flanagan and Freiberg introduced:

  1. H.F 951, A bill for an act relating to public safety; restoring the civil right to vote to an individual upon release from incarceration or upon sentencing if no incarceration is imposed. The bill was read for the first time and referred to the Committee on Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance.

 

NEXT MEETING

The Next Coalition meeting will be Friday, February 24 from 9:30 to 11:00 at Lutheran Church of the Redeemer 285 Dale St. N St. Paul.

 

NEW FACT SHEET

Here is a new Fact Sheet with the list of RTV members on the second page. We will be using this as a handout for legislators.

MINNEAPOLIS SOUTH HIGH DOCUMENTARY

Minneapolis South High School students did a fantastic job creating a documentary on felony disenfranchisement for one of their classes. It features RTV advocates Mark Haase, Rob Stewart, Sarah Walker, and Jason Sole. Please share with your networks. Here is the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pq0LqQe5jK0

SECOND CHANCE DAY ON THE HILL RE-CAP

Last Thursday, Feb. 9, the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition held a rally in the  Capitol Rotunda and had over 40 meetings between constituents and legislators to discuss supporting people with criminals records, including allowing them to vote once released from incarceration.

Watch, learn & share

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We need to restore voting rights to the 47,000 Minnesotans living in our community who are ineligible to vote due to a felony conviction. Once the criminal justice system has determined that a person should be allowed to live in our community, there is no good reason they should not be allowed to have a voice in our democracy. Civic engagement should be encouraged, not prosecuted. Watch this video, share it with your friends and take action today! http://www.congressweb.com/CCJ/12

Action Alert: Support Restore the Vote

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Restore the Vote is once again before Minnesota state lawmakers.  Last year, the legislation was passed by the Senate before ultimately stalling in the House.  Restore the Vote will re-enfranchise approximately 47,000 people who are currently ineligible to vote, because of a felony conviction, even though they live and work in our communities.  Current policy, which this bill would change, unnecessarily and excessively discourages positive civic participation, perpetuates racial injustice, and adds cost and complications to voting.  The policy should be changed so that, like in many other states, once an individual is living in the community, they are eligible to vote.

Once the criminal justice system has determined that a person should be allowed to live in our community, there is no good reason they should not be allowed to have a voice in our democracy. Civic engagement should be encouraged, not prosecuted. Restore the Vote is supported by more than 70 Minnesota organizations from many different perspectives, including public safety organizations like the MN County Attorneys Association and MN Corrections Association; governmental bodies like the Association of Minnesota Counties; civil liberty, advocacy, and service organizations; and statewide groups representing every major faith perspective.

It is critically important that we raise awareness about Restore the Vote.  Please call and/or email your state legislators to urge them to support this legislation!

Click here to send a pre-drafted email to your Senator and State Representative.

Precinct Caucus 2016

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Attention voting rights restoration supporters! If you would like to help us grow support for voting rights restoration, then you should introduce a resolution at your precinct caucus on Tuesday, March 1st. Find your caucus location here.

Voting Restoration Caucus Resolution 2016

Hear Amber’s story – it’s time to restore the vote

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Minnesotans like Amber have been waiting far too long to get their right to vote back. Listen to Amber’s story about, hear what it was like to not be able to vote for so long. Do you have a story to share? Contact: contact@restorethevotemn.org

This video was produced by the League of Women Voters.