The ACLU of Ohio held a voting rights tele-town hall meeting on Tuesday, September 27 as part of National Voter Registration Day.

Our town hall meeting was moderated by activist and media personality Basheer Jones, and featured panelists Crystal Bryant, co-director and partner at Cleveland VOTES, and Katrice Williams, policy associate at the ACLU of Ohio. Callers from across  greater Cleveland were able to listen in and learn why protecting the voting rights of individuals with criminal convictions was important for ensuring the integrity of our democracy. For those who were not able to listen in, here is why you should care.

Vilifying the Bad Guy

Very often when we think of crime or the criminal justice system, we divide ourselves into two populations: the law-abiding, peaceful folks and the “criminals, felons and convicts” who threaten public safety. We denigrate and dehumanize every individual accused or convicted of a crime, even going so far as to pigeonhole them as violent, nefarious villains. All of these “villains,” we falsely believe, are murderers, rapists, big-time drug dealers, and the worst individuals our society has produced. We even go as far as to isolate these individuals from society even after they serve their sentence, stripping them of their very humanity.

There are some individuals who have committed serious and violent crime, but most arrests, citations and convictions are related to non-violent crimes.

Listen to a recording of the Tele-Town Hall Meeting.

The images we have of criminals mislead us. Individuals who have been unable to pay traffic tickets or fines, caught for possessing small amounts of marijuana, engaged in petty theft or other low level offenses have been grouped with those convicted of violent felonies.  Our tele-town hall aimed to educate the public about both not dismissing individuals with criminal convictions and spreading the word that our fellow Ohioans who have been released from prison can vote.

Nearly 12,000 voters answered our live call and 5,900 participated. Our panelists answered the most important question: Can individuals with a criminal conviction vote?

Yes, they can!

Yes, they can participate in our democracy by voting, and no, their voice is not any less important than their counterparts without criminal convictions. To help spread the word, 83% of participants committed to spreading the word to a friend, family member, your community and church that voting is a guaranteed right to individuals who have been convicted of a felony and released from prison. Even if someone you know is on probation, parole or supervised release, or in jail awaiting trial, they can vote.

This is far too important for us not to tell others.

We’ve seen positive changes to voting laws throughout the U.S. and many courts and legislatures expanding access to the ballot. As these efforts balloon across the country to allow the re-enfranchisement of individuals with felony convictions, we need to take extraordinary steps to educate them about their rights. This election, like any election, should not exclude someone because of their past, just as we do not exclude our fellow citizens because of their race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation or physical ability. Creating equal access to the ballot is one step, education is the rest of the journey.