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Let My People Vote!

GRANTEE HIGHLIGHT: The Ordinary People’s Society, and Kenny Glasgow, E. D.Let My People Vote!

Don’t call me an ex-offender, or ex-convict - Call me a person." - Kenny Glasgow, E. D.

In 2001, Kenny Glasgow began asking an important question: How do we change society to make it fair for ordinary people? His organization, The Ordinary People Society, (TOPS), funded by CJI since 2003, exists to do just that. Recognizing the disparities in arrest, bail, and incarceration, Kenny and TOPS set out to learn how to increase equity for the ordinary people caught up in the criminal legal system. They studied past movements, including civil and voting rights organizing, and they soon saw a connection. “Part of the rejection of people who are convicted of crimes,” Kenny explains, “is dehumanizing them. And part of that dehumanization is taking away their voting rights, which are the rights that define citizenship. People are stripped of their citizenship when they’re not allowed to vote.”

That year, the Let My People Vote campaign was born. Kenny knew he wanted to start with language, to call people who have been imprisoned “formerly incarcerated people,” rather than define them by the crime they were convicted of. “Don’t call me an ex-offender, or ex-convict,” Kenny, who has himself been incarcerated, demands. “Call me a person.”

Kicking off nearly two decades of activism, Kenny organized a campaign to help people with criminal records in Alabama regain their right to vote. At the time, there was a widely held misperception in the state that people convicted of felonies lost their voting rights unless and until they had served their sentences and successfully petitioned to have their rights restored. In fact, according to Alabama’s Constitution, only those who have been convicted of felonies “involving moral turpitude” are disqualified from voting. The TOPS campaign not only exposed that misconception – which even the Secretary of State’s website misstated – making it possible for countless people to vote, but ultimately helped win passage of new legislation simplifying the restoration process for those who actually had lost their voting rights.

That legislation became law in 2003, the same year that CJI began funding TOPS to go inside jails to register people to vote. Kenny and TOPS entered city jails in Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, registering people who had been convicted of misdemeanors rather than felonies, as well as people who were awaiting trial and who therefore, despite being incarcerated, had not lost their right to vote. With help from county officials, they developed a mechanism for incarcerated people to vote using absentee ballots. According to the New York Times, in the two years after the 2003 statute took effect, more than 5,500 formerly incarcerated people in Alabama had their voting rights restored.

TOPS has since expanded their work to five states, adding Tennessee and Mississippi to Georgia, Alabama, and Florida. Counted among their “wins,” is yet another successful case against the state of Alabama, this time to restore the voting rights of those who should never have lost them because they were convicted of crimes that were clearly not moral turpitude crimes. In 2017, they won passage of an additional bill that, at long last, clarified exactly which crimes are considered those of moral turpitude, ensuring that people would no longer erroneously lose their right to vote.

TOPS has a similarly persistent and fruitful history in Florida. In 2007, the group successfully pushed for new Rules of Executive Clemency in Florida, which allowed for the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of non-violent felonies, resulting in more than 100,000 people being granted rights within one year. Governor Scott then rolled back that policy when he took office in 2011. Not to be deterred, TOPS played a major role in the 2017 passage of Amendment 4, the game-changing Florida ballot initiative which automatically restored the right to vote to 1.4 million individuals with past felony convictions.

Most recently, TOPS registered and supported approximately 10,000 formerly and currently Incarcerated people to vote in the last congressional election, a move which Kenny believes changed the election’s outcome. He reminds us that people registered in jail or prison, as well as formerly incarcerated people, do not show up on voter lists until the next election after their first vote. So, they are essentially “surprise voters” in their first elections. As Kenny puts it, “These are people that no one appeals to because they are considered non-voters or unlikely voters because of them being disenfranchised and purged off the voting lists.” This is why the in-jail vote can be a surprise element in any election.

To take this strategy nationwide, TOPS has collaborated with Project South to create a toolkit that can be used in jails and prisons all over the country. “An organizer, preacher, layman, inmate or anyone can use our easy to follow Toolkit and actually train others how to do it,” Kenny says. Because the clergy has increased access to prisons and jails, TOPS and Project South train preachers to register people inside, help them vote by absentee ballot, and make sure their ballots are counted. And because people do not always know their rights, they promote awareness through infomercials and ongoing community organizing.

CJI is proud to have supported TOPS in helping achieve their extraordinary success, which will impact local, state, and national elections for years to come. In addition to their work in restoring people to their full citizenship, CJI funded TOPS in 2009 to start the work of the Formerly Incarcerated People’s Movement, FICPM, now known as FICPFM. Currently, FICPFM is a growing network of over 50 civil and human rights organizations led by people who have conviction histories and their family members. It is an honor to have worked with Kenny, TOPS, and FICPFM over the years.

In March 2019, CJI’s executive director, Aleah Bacquie-Vaughn, attended a weekend of activities sponsored by TOPS and their colleagues in Selma, Alabama. It was scheduled that the weekend would culminate in a commemorative walk over the Edmond Pettus Bridge, the historic site where civil rights protesters were attacked in 1965 on a day that became known as Bloody Sunday. The activism-packed weekend included discussions on the role of women in the movement to end mass incarceration, a mock trial against the miseducation of black and brown children, and a clergy breakfast. TOPS also worked with the Bloody Sunday Jubilee Committee, to organize a die-in on the infamous bridge. “Normally,” Aleah says, “when people have commemoration marches, they retrace the steps of the march from Selma to Montgomery. Kenny organized us to go the opposite way. The idea was that we would go back and claim all that was left behind, including the rights of formerly incarcerated people and economic justice for all.”

At the event, Aleah met an organizer who had been a child on Bloody Sunday. “You can still see the scar on her head. People on the bridge cried looking at her. There were also formerly incarcerated people who had experienced shackling there. We all laid down for ten minutes on the wet ground, for the die-in. In the sky, you could see darkness and the clouds of an oncoming tornado. We laid there, and this powerful wave of energy went through the crowd. Many of us wept openly.” “All this,” Aleah concludes, “shows that TOPS is strongly connected to the Selma and Montgomery civil rights legacy.”

Not unlike his predecessors in the Civil Rights Movement, Kenny has recently been charged with a serious felony. “I believe he was charged,” Aleah says, “because of his activism on voter registration, and to disrupt the fundraising he’s been able to do for this work. They charged Kenny and put him in jail, but so many people showed up at the courthouse to support him that they released him on bail.”

Kenny vehemently maintains that he is innocent of the crime, and finds the outpouring of support heartening. He names wide-ranging defenders, including philanthropist Agnes Gund who, he says, approved a large grant to FICPFM, the Formerly Incarcerated Convicted Peoples and Families Movement because, among other things, cases like Kenny’s in which activists are targeted with false criminal charges. But Kenny has no intention of being brought down. “Most of the Southern succession states have the moral turpitude language,” he says. “They make it hard to get jobs and housing on top of not voting. We’re thinking about fighting those moral turpitude clauses and all of their implications.” There’s also the issue of fees assessed on people when they’re released from prison after serving their sentences. “It’s the modern poll tax,” Kenny explains. “If you haven’t paid all of the fees they put on you, you still don’t get your right to vote. TOPS is working to pass legislation that will change that, too.”

In summary, the “Let My People Vote” campaign works with:

  • Incarcerated people who are charged with, but not convicted of, crimes, helping them to register and vote by absentee ballot.

  • Incarcerated people who were convicted of misdemeanors, helping them to register and vote by absentee ballot.

  • People with felony convictions who are no longer incarcerated, helping them to restore their rights, and register to vote.

  • People with restored rights, helping them to train others.

  • Clergy, community members, and other organizations, engaging them in the fight and growing the movement.

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