As a young man, Carlos Rodriguez never thought much about voting. It wasn’t until he was stripped of his rights over a felony conviction that he realized he had taken it for granted.
This month, at 66, Rodriguez finally cast his first ballot.
For the first time in five decades, Rodriguez and other people on parole could participate in major local elections, including Los Angeles’ mayoral race, following the overwhelming approval of Proposition 17 in 2020. Rodriguez voted at the Center for Living and Learning, the same nonprofit where staff have helped him adjust to life after his release from incarceration.
The Office of Diversion and Reentry helped add voting sites for the recent election at a handful of our community partners — the Center for Living and Learning, Chrysalis, Homeboy Industries, St. Joseph Center, and the Alliance for Community Empowerment. Each organization also participated in voter education and registration activities.
“Civic engagement is a critical part of regaining a sense of belonging and power for people who were formerly incarcerated,” ODR’s Reentry Director Vanessa Martin said. “That’s why we have made voter education and registration a core part of our programs.”
Maria “Alex” Alexander, the executive director of the Center for Living and Learning, has seen first-hand how civic engagement is empowering, and life changing, for her clients. But this year’s election is particularly special, she said. “We have spent many years advocating for legislation that extended voting rights to formerly incarcerated people. This year all of us are eligible.”
The expanded access was organized by “LA Free the Vote,” a collaboration between ODR, the LA County Board of Supervisors, the LA County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk and community-based organizations. The goal was to draw more underrepresented voters into the political process, said Jessica Sarriot, who spearheaded the collaboration on behalf of ODR.
“As we are seeing access to voting rights curtailed in different parts of our country, the partnerships that LA Free the Vote promotes is more critical than ever,” Sarriot said. “We couldn’t do it without our incredible community partners stepping up, and the resilient voters who show up to do their part for democracy.”
For JJ Lamas at the Alliance for Community Empowerment, the visiting polling place was a boost for clients during the often difficult reentry process. “I wish you all could’ve seen their expressions in person,” he wrote after watching ballots cast onsite this month. “It was truly euphoric, and they are very proud of themselves for voting.”
He added, “Proposition 17 is giving the voice back to our community members who have been silenced far too long.”