MICHIGAN — In late September, the NAACP Metropolitan Kalamazoo branch released a video they put together encouraging people with felony records to vote.
“I have a felony record and I vote,” said one person in the video.
“I have a felony record and I vote,” said another person afterwards.
Then Michigan United activist and organizer Ed Genesis appeared and repeated the same statement, “I have a felony and I also vote.”
Genesis said he was glad to do it and be a part of the project.
“Miss Wendy Fields, who’s the president of the Kalamazoo chapter of the NAACP, she felt that every year you hear people say ‘I can’t vote, I can’t vote,’” said Genesis during an interview via Zoom on October 6. “She felt like it was a powerful message to get out there and change that narrative.”
Genesis agreed. He said there’s a lot of myths and untruths about voting for people with felony records. However in the state of Michigan, anyone with a felony record can cast a ballot.
“Voting for me is very powerful for one any way because it does exemplify the fact that we have a voice and your voice is being heard and recognized,” Genesis said. “You feel slighted in the community, you feel like a second class citizen in the community but you have the right to vote.”
Genesis said he understands the stigma associated with having a record. He has three felonies, the last one happening in 2003. He’s since become an activist, voted for the first time in the 2016 election and helps to spread the word about the significance of voting.
“For me to be apart of [the project] especially being a criminal justice reform organizer, I feel like that’s important because not only can we reduce recidivism but we tell people that you can be active in your community,” he said. “And your voice will be heard and respected.”
Kamau Sandiford agreed. However what he’s seeing at the Access to Justice Clinic at Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law School is that a lot of their clients simply do not know they have the right to vote.
“We had a client who got a conviction expunged and at the end they said ‘oh I can now vote.’ And the judge actually informed them ‘you know you could’ve always voted,’” Sandiford said during an interview on Wednesday October 14. “But for that reason, they never voted.”
He said some clients don’t even try to vote. They feel that because they got a felony decades ago that it automatically hinders their right to vote.
However, that’s not true, he said.
“I would always encourage people to at least put yourself out there, speak to an attorney and let them determine whether you’re eligible or not,” Sandiford said.
The NAACP video also suggested that people check with the secretary of state’s website to check their status. Nevertheless, the branch hopes that everyone gets the message that people with felony records can vote.
“People hear it all the time. It sounds cliche,” Genesis said. “‘Voting is power, power in voting.’ It really is powerful.’