By: Dennis Eckhoff
Having access to guidance is something that I had taken for granted for most of my life. I’m lucky to have two supportive parents who did their best to show me the path towards adulthood. If I hoped to earn a raise or promotion at work, I could speak to a supervisor and be advised to work more hours or take on a special project. If I needed a better grade in a class, a helpful instructor would often lay out options to get me there, provided I work for it.
In some cases, these possibilities may not have existed, but at least hearing a “sorry, no” is conclusive. You can take that with you and regroup, reassess. What I had not anticipated, and had never experienced before, is the feeling of being on an island, alone, with no guidance at all.
In the mid-2000s, I was charged and convicted of a Class 6 felony in Arizona. I was sentenced in 2004 and by 2006 had completed that sentence -- all jail time served, all fines paid, all probationary requirements satisfied. Owing to my youth at the time, I was naive to believe that I had put this chapter of my life behind me -- a period in which I exhibited very poor judgment and endured the consequences with humility and contrition in my heart.
I was eager to move on from my felony conviction as much as the state would allow and revert to a “normal” life. Of course, as a felon, certain rights are restricted, but learning their terms and intricacies and whether I had any recourse was a dead end. None of my friends or classmates were convicted felons (if they were, they weren’t talking about it). There were no next steps or resources provided after my probationary conditions were met. I asked a trusted government professor for help, herself a titan of Arizona constitutional law, and despite her best intentions, all she could provide was a stack of labyrinthine county court paperwork and pursed lips that suggested an uphill climb.
Of most importance to me was restoring my right to vote. This may sound convenient given where you’re reading this, but I’ve always taken seriously my civic responsibility and was determined to find if I could still carry out this basic right. Endless internet searches led me to attorneys teasing a paid consult, obsolete state and county edicts, laws from other states that were irrelevant, and misinformation of all stripes that yielded nothing I could call concrete. I also briefly considered attempting to cast a ballot without a solution at hand, but the thought of subjecting myself to additional prosecution quickly ended that. Voting is important, but it’s not worth that risk.
This absence of quality information is voter suppression in its most passive form. I had all but given up hope of finding something definitive, and decided that I could make my presence felt in other ways -- phone banking, registering others to vote, and so on. I was resigned to never voting again, and I begrudgingly accepted that as fact.
Browsing Twitter in late August, I saw a post referencing voting rights education with an attached URL, which I followed to restoreyourvote.org. My first instinct was to question whether I was understanding correctly. A one-stop, no-gimmicks, free(!), forehead-slappingly simple interface that adapts instantly to individual state law? In under 60 seconds, I chose my state and answered a handful of Yes or No questions, and was told that I could indeed vote. Like, now. Today. I’m eligible. I verified my registration, and I’ll be voting in the Arizona midterms on November 6th, my first ballot cast since the 2000 presidential election.
This was the basic education that I had been seeking for over a decade (in Arizona, those with a single conviction are automatically eligible to vote once all responsibilities have been fulfilled). For years it didn’t exist, and then it did. Brilliant.
That night I messaged the provided email address in hopes of volunteering and was quickly connected with my local organizers. Within a week I was canvassing a neighborhood near my own in the Phoenix metro area, speaking to neighbors about voting registration in general and felons’ rights in particular. I knew there were others like me who were desperate for some kind of help but had nowhere to turn.
Nearly everyone has a friend or coworker with a past conviction that will always be there in some form, affecting their lives in unpredictable ways. The Campaign Legal Center’s Restore Your Vote effort to inform my underserved population was a revelation for me, and will be for many others. It provides peace of mind. It is empowering. It aids in feeling less like an “other”, and welcomes one back to a vital segment of our democracy after being told to leave. I’m thrilled that this exists to educate others without asking anything in return, and I’m grateful that they were there to guide me.