Louis L. Reed on Can I Vote if I Have Completed My Prison Sentence?

Louis L. Reed

Louis L. Reed

Louis L. Reed talks about losing - and regaining - his franchise after completing his prison sentence. Many justice impacted citizens do not realize they may be able to vote after serving time. Reed implores them to not only register, but vote; to not only vote, but lead. To turn up and turn out.

Suffrage for Returning Citizens

Only Maine, Vermont and the District of Columbia allow individuals convicted of felonies to vote while imprisoned. State policies on voting while on parole or probation vary. 

Can you vote if you have completed your prison sentence? Yes, you may be eligible to vote in the majority of states in most cases. In some states, voter restoration rights occur automatically while in other states there are additional steps and requirements.

Meet Louis L. Reed, Justice Impacted Voter Restoration Champion

Having served nearly fourteen years in federal prison, Louis L. Reed is well versed in the voter restoration process. Reed has become one of the nation’s more charismatic advocates for criminal justice reform. He has worked with Jay Z’s Reform Alliance as well as Van Jones & Jessica Jackson’s Dream Corps (formerly #cut50). Currently, Louis L. Reed is the Executive Vice President of The Frederick Douglass Project for Justice.

Reed’s extensive record of success includes award winning local policy implementation; landmark national and state legislation advocacy; documentary representation and production; and motivational public speaking. These excerpts of his conversation with U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote) about voter restoration will illuminate and inspire.

US.VOTE

Louis, thank you so much for joining US Vote to talk about voter restoration. We're really happy to have you here with us.

Louis L. Reed

It's great to be with US Vote today just to talk about voter restoration and how we can be activated. When I say we, I'm talking about, specifically, Black and Brown and poor White people who traditionally have not been as engaged in national elections as we could be really since the enthusiasm has waned from 2008 with the Obama hope and change election that put a booster shot of enthusiasm into the national electorate. So it's great to be here.

US.VOTE

You're really hitting on exactly what we care about in the YES Campaign at US Vote. We look for demographics of people who are in different situations that deter them from voting. 

The first thing I want to talk to you about is your history with voting. I know that you came up hard. Your parents were incarcerated when you were only five years old. You were just a boy when you were fast tracked into criminal enterprise. 

Louis L. Reed

Mm-hmm.

US.VOTE

You were shot as a teenager. You've seen people die. I don't mean to bring this right up.

Louis L. Reed

No, it's okay. It's part of my life experience. Yeah.

US.VOTE

It's a lot to come up with. And yet I know that you registered to vote during this time.

Louis L. Reed

Yes.

US.VOTE

When I was researching your background, I saw that in 1998 you registered to vote. And I thought: Wow! You were going through all of this in your life and you still registered to vote.

I want to hear about that. 

Louis L. Reed

Yeah. As you just explained, I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Both of my parents were incarcerated when I was five years old. Think about how that impacts the life of a child, the development of a child, especially at that point in time.

You didn't have a lot of Brown and Black people in law enforcement. The only time I saw White folks in our neighborhoods were either to arrest you or to take you (in terms of child protective services).

What that did was develop a very high degree of distrust toward any persons that were in a position of authority, including elected officials. Specifically politicians. 

The only time we saw politicians come to our neighborhood was when it was campaign season. Outside of that, we didn't see them. We didn't hear from them. They didn't patronize us, so to speak. 

And so I remember, as I ultimately grew older, even in the midst of criminal enterprising, one of the things that was near and dear to me from a democracy perspective was the ability to be able to vote.

I remember what it was like to register to vote. It was akin to getting my identification card or my driver's license. It was just one of those things where I was like, I'm somebody. I can have a voice in being able to effectuate change in my neighborhood, in my community in a way that I previously had not been engaged in or had felt locked out of.

US.VOTE

Mm hmm.

Louis L. Reed

I just remember what that was like for me. It was me and a cohort of other people, maybe about seven of us. We were on the block criminal enterprising. We were selling heroin and trafficking in crack cocaine at that time. I remember having a conversation with a few of my friends and we were talking about President Clinton. 

Around that time, he was going through the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And we were just talking about what was going on on a local level and on a national level. It was street politics. 

I said something to my friend to the degree of 'you don't even have a voice or a right to pontificate on anything because you're not even registered to vote.'

My friend said, are you registered to vote?

I said, no, I'm not registered to vote. Let's go register to vote right now.

We left the block that we were criminal enterprising on. We went down to city hall and all of us registered to vote.

I'll just say this as a p.s. - I remember this as a fallacy. One of my friends, he had a warrant. He was like, I'm not going down there with you guys because it's just a set up. They're going to get us in there for us to register to vote and then they're going to arrest us for any outstanding warrants. That didn't happen.

But that was kind of like my impetus, my catalyst for registering.

US.VOTE

I think it's really significant that with everything you were going through it was still that important to you to have that sense of agency. I also hear you saying that you were thinking about the things that affected your neighborhood. 

Even if it's something at the national level, like a presidential scandal, that will make the news and start conversations, the fact that you were aware at such a young age that your vote affects your neighborhood - that awareness is so interesting.

Louis L. Reed

Well, look, it wasn't until I got older that I realized that all politics literally are local. And that while what happens on the national level may spark a conversation, what's happening and affecting my community is actually in city hall. In my city council. 

And so for me the notion of what voting is like, and the usage and utility of it, has evolved since I was that person standing on the corner criminal enterprising. 

One of the things that I do as a person who is justice impacted - I served fourteen years in federal prison - I try to mobilize and galvanize people who are justice impacted. For them to have an increased literacy of what their voting rights are. When your rights are restored. How you can vote. When you go to register to vote, no one is going to go on a national crime information computer to see whether or not you have a criminal history. Or to see if you have any outstanding warrants. 

My thinking has evolved a lot since I was that eighteen, nineteen year old kid.

US.VOTE

Let's keep with that timeline. You register to vote. It's 1998. Not long after you are sentenced to prison. 

Louis L. Reed

Right. I registered to vote in 1998. Never voted. Didn't vote. I went in [to prison) in January 2000. So here comes the 2000 election, Bush versus Gore. 

I was incarcerated on a federal level. So I saw the policies from the Bush administration that impacted me in my incarceration. I saw what happened after 9/11. I saw the mass incarceration of people who were without documentation; I saw the influx of that. I saw how the quality of my stint, my ten year incarceration, was diminishing.

When I was incarcerated at the federal level, the perception was that it was Club Fed. So when you were there you had ice cream. You had cube steaks. You had no control over movement and things of that nature. And the moment you saw an influx of people that were undocumented going into the federal system, the quality of life went down and the security of the institution went up.

I saw how the Bush policies affected me from a societal perspective but also from a quality of life perspective even when I was incarcerated. It lit a righteous indignation inside of me. It was eight years of Bush then here comes Obama in 2008 with hope and change. 

I can tell you I had the biggest case of - I believe the young people call it FOMO. Missing out on an opportunity. 

I remember wanting to be home. Not so I could be home to open a refrigerator and be with my family. All of the accoutrements of life. That was obvious. I wanted to be home because I wanted to be a part of not just history but be a part of destiny. I wanted to be home to be able to cast my vote for, prospectively, the nation's first Black elected President of the United States of America. 

I remember just having such a desire to want to do so. And that never left me. So fast forward, and we might take a few steps back, the first time I participated in an election in any way shape or form, was after I came home in 2014.

US.VOTE

I wanted to ask you about that. I wasn't sure if your rights had been restored. Before we get to that, I want to back up to when you lost that right.

You're describing how you felt being disenfranchised. Watching the world change outside, but inside, too. 

For the most part, when people are incarcerated, they lose the right to vote. Except for Maine, Vermont, and D.C. -

Louis L. Reed

- Right, Maine, Vermont, and D.C., yeah.

US.VOTE

I know you were profoundly affected by that while you were in prison. But I wondered if, when you were sentenced, when you had the weight of the world on you realizing everything that's about to happen: Were you told or aware that you had lost your voting rights?

Louis L. Reed

When you are sentenced in a court in the United States of America they do what's call a colloquy. It informs you of your rights that you are going to lose. So they'll say, for instance, you're going to lose your right to appeal because you plead guilty. You give up certain basic rights. They'll ask if you if you're under the influence of any substances, drugs or alcohol. Are you under threat or coercion in order to enter a plea. But they never say you're going to lose your right to vote.

US.VOTE

They don't say that?

Louis L. Reed

They don't say that. And think about that. Voting is the chief cornerstone of our democracy. 

When you stand in a court in the United States of America, one of the primary things that they should tell you, in addition to you giving up the right to appeal, it should be that in this state, if you plead guilty to a [felony] offense, your right to vote is going to be suspended until X period of time. That's the very least that we should be informing defendants in our courtrooms about. 

US.VOTE

I think there are also a lot of people who have had their rights restored and they don't know that either.

Louis L. Reed

It works in the reverse.

You have people who got convicted for crimes unrelated to voting. They want to now be a law abiding citizen. They're paying their taxes. They want to be able to cast their vote in their city, town, state or country. 

You have people who, after they serve their term of prison sentence, are off probation or parole or supervision - there's no notice that you get that says your rights are restored.

You don't know what to do because no one is informing you. They're informing you of what you can't do, but not informing you of what you can do.

US.VOTE

In Connecticut, specifically, where you were sentenced, soon after you went away, there was a law change. People on probation could vote.

Louis L. Reed

Yes.

US.VOTE

A lot of people weren't sure they could vote. People mix up the difference between -

Louis L. Reed

 - Probation and Parole -

US.VOTE

- Yes. And I know you testified in support of a new Connecticut law granting people on parole the right to vote as well. 

Louis L. Reed

It's fitting to talk about the difference between parole and probation. Parole is the amount of time you owe the state's department of corrections once you are released from custody. Probation is what the courts can sentence you to even if you've never been incarcerated.

Those people weren't locked up. But they were locked out of the vote.

Many of these people don't even know that their rights were restored.

US.VOTE

Exactly. 

CNN reported in 2020 that an estimated 15 million people have had their rights restored. But many aren't voting. The Marshall Project reported that in some states a few as one in four returning citizens with restored rights voted. 

That's something we need to talk about. How do you mobilize? How do you get people to find out and want to vote?

Louis L. Reed

You have to consider this number as well. In the United States of America there are more than 70 million people with criminal histories. 70 million people. 

You're talking about 15 million people who, in effect, are locked out of opportunities, not because they're ineligible, but psychologically, or they just haven't gotten the memo.

Look, we're about to celebrate Juneteenth. Think about what the spirit of Juneteenth was, right? Juneteenth was about President Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation and the information of that buffering, so to speak, before it got to Black folks, right?

US.VOTE

Right.

Louis L. Reed

And so when we think about the people who fit into that 15 million voting bloc, it's almost like there's still that buffering. The word has not gotten out. It has not trickled down that there has been a voting emancipation proclamation signed reallowing these individuals to reengage in democracy. 

And so specifically to answer your question, how do we resolve that?  Very simple.

[Louis picks up his mobile phone.]

In our hands. We have more technological advancement than the United States had to put the first man on the moon.

How can we do so?

There are certain demographics of people that are captured by state departments of correction, parole, etc. One of those happens to include cell phone numbers.

You mean to tell me we can't have a system where we can't just press a button and say, hey this is the state informing you that your rights have been restored. Then we can expand it out to a larger agency.

Look, if we can send Amber alerts to phones...You know what? I have a quick resolve for this. Why don't we hire the people who keep spamming my phone with text messages?

US.VOTE

[Laughter]

The State of California does inform people that are reentering that their right to vote has been restored. But it's certainly not a state-by-state policy.

Louis L. Reed

It is not. 

I believe that Republicans at their best believe in liberty. I believe that Democrats at their best believe in justice. All of us, as Americans, at our best, should believe in liberty and justice for all people. Once you have served your time, once you have paid your debt to society, there's nothing that should lock you out of the most fundamental principle, the most fundamental action that as Americans we should participate in. That is the right to vote. Period. 

US.VOTE

Hopefully you speaking out will help make a difference for that. US Vote has a voter restoration guide -

Louis L. Reed

- Yes, very comprehensive - 

US.VOTE

- You can look up how it works in your state and register.

Louis L. Reed

Yeah, you can re-register to vote. But it's one thing to register or re-register, but another to actively vote.

US.VOTE

Yes.

Louis L. Reed

No matter how much money you have. No matter how much influence you have. No matter how much power you have. No matter how much affluence you have. Everybody in this country only gets one vote. 

Doesn't matter whether you are Bill Gates. Jeff Bezos. Jay-Z. Jamal who is on the block. Whether or not you are Mary the housewife. Everybody only gets one vote. And that is the great equalizer about voting.

It doesn't matter who you know. How much you have. Where you have been. Doesn't matter.

The great equalizer about our democracy is that you only get one vote. Everybody gets one vote. 

You can't buy votes because you have more money than me. You can have more degrees than a thermometer. That doesn't give you more votes than I do. So your vote is not more important than mine. That is the great equalizer of our democracy. 

And so it's one thing to register or re-register to vote. It's another to take the power of your one vote and go in the ballot box and cast that vote for the most qualified candidate in your mind. And that's what I'm encouraging everyone to do.

US.VOTE

You make such a solid point that you have to show up.

Registering is a great first step. Sometimes people don't know where to start. 

But now most states have early voting so there are a lot of options. Hopefully people get this message.

Louis L. Reed

Yes, I hope so.

US.VOTE

Is there anything else you'd like to say to people who have been justice impacted around voting or voter restoration?

Louis L. Reed

You potentially could be not the next anyone else, but the first of your kind. If you want to, in effect, effectuate change, there are two ways you can do it.

You can vote for the candidate of your choice. Or you can run for public office. 

I, personally, would like to see more people that have been justice impacted represent who we are in the state legislature. Who we are on the national level. Who we are on the local level. That's what I would personally like to see.

US Vote Voter Accounts are a great resource for justice impacted voters. You can safely store all your voting information to easily generate forms when you register, re-register, or request an absentee ballot. You can look up your representatives and sign up for reminders when elections are coming up.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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