Justin Parrish was in prison in 2016 while Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were running for president. He’d been handed a five-year sentence a year earlier after pleading guilty to possession of methamphetamine.
Instead of gearing up for a trip to his local voting location, Parrish, who said he had always been interested in politics, chose to stay engaged in a different way — by holding a mock election behind bars in the Bill Johnson Correctional Center in Alva.
“We had 104 people,” Parrish, who now lives in Enid, said. “So I set up a mock election. Interestingly enough, Hillary won by around six or seven votes. So afterward some of us looked at the outcome and discussed it. It was pretty interesting.”
Oklahoma is one of 21 states where convicted felons lose their voting privileges until their sentence is fully discharged.
In 2019 a bill authored by Rep. Regina Goodwin, D-Tulsa, and Sen. Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, that clarified the right of felons in Oklahoma to vote upon completion of their sentence was signed into law.
The rules here are more lax than some states and more strict than others.
In some states, like Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while in prison, where they can vote absentee.
There are 11 states where the resumption of voting rights is delayed even after a person’s sentence has been served, and some states — like Mississippi — where certain crimes will bar a person from ever voting again.
In Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia, anyone convicted of a felony is barred for life from voting.
Re-enfranchising convicted felons has become big business recently. In Florida, where convicted felons must serve their prison sentence and repay all fines and fees before regaining their right to vote, former Democrat Presidential Candidate Mike Bloomberg and a group of others spent more than $20 million to pay off court debts.
Neil Volz, the deputy director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, told Politico that the average person had about $1,000 in fines and fees, meaning the group might eventually return voting rights to as many as 20,000 people.
Parrish, like many other previously convicted felons who spoke to The Frontier about their plans to vote in the upcoming Nov. 3 election, said that he wasn’t sure what the rules were in Oklahoma about felons voting.
“No one had said anything to me about it that I remember,” said Parrish, who spent 21 months in prison before he was released on probation in 2017. “A couple months ago the thought crossed my mind that I might be able to vote again once my sentence was up in October. A month later I logged onto the Oklahoma election website to look and I thought, wow, I’m going to be able to vote for president.”
Parrish was able to rebuild his life after leaving prison. While he was incarcerated, his father died and left him some money for when he was released. Parrish said he cleaned up while in prison and stopped using drugs and also found himself becoming more religious. He said he now has a good job and he spends his free time ministering to other people who’d found themselves in a bad place.
But not everyone is that lucky. Most of the people who spoke to The Frontier asked to remain anonymous, fearing that being identified as a former prison inmate could cost them their jobs or friendships.
One such person — Marc — said that, like Parrish, he wasn’t sure what Oklahoma’s rules were about voting post-conviction. In 2016 he watched as Trump became president despite losing the popular vote and resented the fact that he didn’t vote. It wasn’t until long after that election that a family member informed him he had regained his right to vote because his sentence for marijuana distribution had been completed.
“I was surprised by how much I missed that right,” Marc said. “I viewed it more as an American citizen, it’s my responsibility to voice my opinion. I didn’t vote last time and this time I said it’s my responsibility.”
Like Marc, Matt, asked that his full name not be used because he feared repercussions from being identified as a convicted felon.
And like Marc, Matt — who voted in 2016 — said that a big motivation for his return to the voting booth was that he wanted to exercise a right that he’d previously lost.
“Even though Oklahoma is so red that in reality your individual vote for president doesn’t really matter, it was important to me to use my right because I had lost it. If I had been in some other states I might not have gotten that right back.”
Matt served prison time after becoming addicted to drugs, he said. The drugs led to larceny in order to fuel the addiction and it finally caught up with him.
He said that before going to prison, he’d been registered as a voter, but rarely, if ever, actually voted.
“It just didn’t matter to me,” he said. “When I got released and everything was finally discharged, I was like ‘Oh, I can vote now.’
“I think that someone who has gotten their voting rights back after being in prison tells you that they’ve gone through some time and work to earn it back. There has to be a period of growth for that to happen, because if you don’t get your head on straight you never get out of the system. So when you get that right (to vote) back, you’ve grown up at that point and you realize that voting is more important than just being something you do if you live in a swing state.”
Marc said that not being able to vote was the longest-lasting effect of his conviction. Since he had no prior record and his crime was a non-violent drug crime, he was able to negotiate a sentence that didn’t include time in a prison facility.
“You know I really thought I would never be able to vote again, I felt like I was being punished unfairly by never getting to vote again,” he said. “Now I’m tickled over this. I’m going to show up to vote, it’s my first chance to do it in years. I’m going to take full advantage and go in there and vote and get my sticker, the same as anyone else.”
Likewise, Parrish said that being able to vote was a crucial part of his feeling like a full member of society again.
“In my heart I know now that my identity is found through Christ,” he said. “But we still face society. We still walk down the street and know people might brand us an ex-con, some guy to be scared of. But when we start to regain these rights and do the right things, it helps put it all in the past. My eyes start to tear up thinking about it. I’m formerly convicted, it’s in the past.”