Imprisoned felons could determine outcome of local elections

By Senator Pat Bates
Published in the Orange County Register
Aug 28, 2016

As a former social worker, I believe in giving people second chances. But allowing felons to vote while still behind bars? That makes no sense.

Yet Democrats in the state Legislature recently approved Assembly Bill 2466 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. It would allow convicted felons serving their sentences in county jail to vote while behind bars. The bill is now with Gov. Brown and Californians should urge him to veto it.

AB2466 follows the state’s public safety “realignment” law that the governor signed in 2011. Realignment is designed to reduce the state’s prison population by sending inmates with “lower-level” felonies to county jails. Under AB2466, these inmates would vote in the district where they are incarcerated. For example, an inmate whose home residence is in San Clemente would be able to vote for local races affecting Santa Ana, since that is where Orange County’s Central Jail is located.

Why should criminals behind bars have the opportunity to affect local elections? Many felons spending time in county jail are not residents of the city in which the jail is located. These individuals who are in a county jail may have zero connection to any of the issues going on in that city, have no vested interest, or perhaps a negative one. Given that we have seen local elections determined by a handful of votes in recent years, it is not right to potentially have felons determine the outcome in close races.

AB2466 presents some interesting scenarios: Imagine jailed inmates participating in the election of the same Superior Court judge who is hearing their case. Will future jail bookings now include fingerprints, mugshots, and “don’t forget to fill out your voter registration card?”

Those who support AB2466 also contend that it will help enhance the civic participation of all eligible voters. Indeed, the bill is the latest in a series of efforts to increase voter turnout in California. In recent years, proposals have included reducing the lead time to register before voting to 15 days, same-day voter registration, permanent absentee voting, automatic registration at the DMV, automatic voter registration for college students, pre-registration for high school students and even extending registration and voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds.

But these efforts have not been effective. Despite decades of making it easier to vote and public officials imploring citizens to go to the polls, a 2015 report issued by the Public Policy Institute of California regarding state voting trends shows that turnout has slightly declined since the 2000 elections. The November presidential election that year saw turnout among voters at just above 75 percent. Turnout for the 2012 November election was about the same. And voter turnout during June elections has plummeted from just above 50 percent in 2000 to less than 30 percent over those same 12 years. Making it easier to register and vote simply has not resulted in more Californians casting ballots.

I can understand the desire to encourage voter turnout. When eligible citizens do not register and do not exercise their right to vote, the very legitimacy of our elected representative form of government can be called into question. But the PPIC also tells us that, based on public opinion surveys, the No. 1 reason voters do not register to vote is their low trust in government. Do we really think allowing felons to vote while serving their sentences in county jail will increase trust in government?

AB2466 is a solution in search of a problem, and deserves to be vetoed.

Senator Patricia “Pat” Bates, R-Laguna Niguel, represents the 36th Senate District in the California Legislature, which covers South Orange County, North San Diego County and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

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