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My Speech About Felony Disenfranchisement at the 2020 Official NYC Women’s March in Foley Square

It’s 2020.

In 1920 – just 100 years ago — the 19th Amendment was ratified and women of the day finally won the right to vote. 

The right to vote is one we hold dear. 

The right to vote means everything to so many of us.

How many of you — like me — are counting down the days until we can cast our votes for a new President of the United States?

But what you may not realize is that millions of people will be turned away at the polls because of felony convictions.

People like Crystal Mason. You may have heard her story.  She is a black woman who lives in Texas.  In was 2016, and Crystal had served three years in federal prison for tax fraud.  She had reconnected with her kids, got a job, and when it came time to election day, went to the polls to cast her vote for the first woman president.  What Crystal didn’t realize is that because she was still under federal supervision, she was not allowed to vote under the Texas felony rules.  She was arrested, convicted and sentenced to 5 years in prison for illegally voting.

Five years for trying to vote.

Crystal’s conviction and sentence are currently being appealed.

But today millions of people – people just like Chrystal Mason — remain second class citizens who cannot vote because they have a felony conviction.

And that’s what I am here to talk to you about. How we can change felony disenfranchisement.

My name is Jessica Henry.  I am a former public defender, professor; writer and a criminal justice activist.

I am so honored to be here at the Women’s March in 2020. 

Here’s how felony disenfranchisement works.

48 states – all except Maine and Vermont — do not allow people to vote if they are in prison.

The US has 2.3 million people behind bars.  We are the worlds largest jailers.  And our mass incarceration policies and our war on drugs are racist and wrong.

They disproportionately impact poor people and people of color. And today they are impacting women more than ever before.  The rate of incarceration for women has increased by 700% since 1980.  

These policies of exclusion are no accident.

If you go back in history, you’ll see that in the South during the Reconstruction Era, felony disenfranchisement laws were designed to exclude black people from voting. 

It is still having that effect today.

One of every thirteen Black adults is disenfranchised. In some states like Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and, until last year, Florida, one in five Blacks were disenfranchised.

And it is not just people in prison who can’t vote.

In some states, people with a felony conviction can’t vote if they are on probation or parole.  Then there places that permanently exclude people from voting if they have a felony conviction.   No matter what people do, they can’t vote. 

Even though they served their time.

Even though they paid their debt to society.

Even though they have jobs and pay taxes.

Even though it means there is taxation without representation.

They can’t vote.

But there is no reason to link voting with a criminal record.

And this matters.

It matters more than ever because this is an election year.

Can you imagine if women – look to your left and look to your right – we powerful, smart, organized, motivated, fired up women — were still denied the right to vote because of our status as women?

It would matter.  A lot.

Just as felony disenfranchisement matters.

Elections today are won and lost at the margins. Every vote counts.

Susan B. Anthony and the women who fought for our right to vote knew just how important the right to vote is for our citizenry.

For our democracy.

We owe it to our sisters who fought for our right to vote to pay it forward.

We owe it to Crystal Mason, who faces 5 years for trying to exercise her right to vote.

Join me in fighting to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions.

Join me in calling out the injustices of our criminal justice system.

I’ve written up a list of specific action items that you can take today to make a difference in criminal justice reform at    

Let’s keep America safe and keep more Americans free, while protecting the right to vote for all. 

2 Responses

  1. What a great and important speech Jessica! We need to keep working in all our different capacities for prison reform including challenging racist and classist voter disenfranchisement laws in the books. We cannot call ourselves a democracy when huge portion of our citizenry is denied the right to vote.
    I’m proud to be your colleague! Keep doing what you do!

    1. Thanks, Fawzia. Totally agree. Just look at What is happening in Florida (which I couldn’t explain in the speech, but which I get into more in the “Four Steps You Can Take Right Now to End Felony Disenfranchisement” blog post)… it is just shocking. The state legislature, Governor and courts are doing an end-run around the voter’s desire to end felony disenfranchisement in that state. Onward!

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