During Betty McKay’s long stretch in prison, she and her cellmates debated politics, conducted mock elections and dreamed of the day they would be allowed to vote again.

“You have to read up on the props … on everything, because how else are you gonna go in and vote on something?” McKay said. “We have groups where we sit and talk about a debate, props and laws and things on the ballot.”

McKay recalled how she and the other mock debaters would stand in lines for 40 to 55 minutes long to cast votes in prison for the elections — knowing their votes wouldn’t actually count. 

Politics had found McKay while she served a 27-year sentence for throwing hot grease at her husband and his mistress.

But when she completed her prison sentence, McKay had to wait almost three more years for the completion of her parole period before she could cast a real ballot.

A measure on this year’s state ballot, Proposition 17, aims to change a big part of that. 

If passed, Prop. 17 would restore voting rights for parolees. It will also allow anyone on parole to run for office as long as they’re registered to vote and haven’t been convicted of perjury or bribery. 

If voters pass Prop. 17, more than 50,000 former inmates will have their voting rights restored, and California would join more than a dozen other states, including Nevada, North Dakota and Utah, that allows parolees to vote. 

If we say prison is used for rehabilitation, we should believe people come out rehabilitated, and a rehabilitated person should be allowed to vote,” said Prop. 17 supporter Tyra Burks.

Not everyone agrees.

The Election Integrity Project California describes itself as a nonpartisan group that seeks “to defend the integrity of the voting process that protects our freedoms and way of life.”

The group opposes Prop. 17, saying that formerly incarcerated individuals still have a lot to prove after they are released from prison and before their voting rights are reinstated.

An individual on parole has not regained the full trust of the society at large, nor the privilege to participate as a full member of that society,” the group said in testimony to the California state Legislature.

But for Shay Franco-Clausen, a leader of the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women and campaign manager for Prop. 17, inmates’ hunger for political involvement is reflected in their participation in political education. Franco-Clausen and her colleagues send monthly newsletters to incarcerated people so they can see what’s happening in their communities. 

“We make sure they have an informational video to show them how to fill out the ballot, we give them information about both sides of every argument,” Franco-Clausen said. She added that in the case of county jail inmates, who are eligible to vote, “We bring their ballots to them.” 

‘I grew up in prison’

Veronica Hernandez went to prison at age 16.

“I grew up in prison,” Hernandez said. “It was a very difficult and different experience because not only was I serving a sentence, I was also growing up. So I was dealing with two different things at the time.” 

Along with her liberty, Hernandez lost the right to vote, but she recalls organizations coming in to talk to her about voter education and how even during incarceration her voice mattered. 

“When you’re in a situation like that at times it can seem like nothing you say matters, but they tell you it does matter,” Hernandez said.

At 27, Hernandez was released from prison, but had to complete her parole sentence which meant she still couldn’t vote.

Hernandez said this obstacle didn’t stop her from wanting to be a different person than the one who committed crimes. She wanted the chance to participate in society.

“I was basically really determined to give back to the community and to make amends,”  said Hernandez, who is currently a case manager for Homey, a San Francisco based nonprofit that works on community social justice issues and violence prevention.

Hernandez decided to start her new life in the very area where her offenses took place.

“I explained this to them and they hired me despite my record because of my past and experience in the community because I can relate to the youth,” she said.

For Hernandez and many other inmates, the issue in Prop. 17 is simple: once they have paid for their crimes, they argue they should be eligible to participate fully in the political process.

“My crime is what I did, it’s not who I am,” McKay said. “It’s certainly not who I am today.” McKay said. 

Victoria Franco is a Stockton-based reporter covering the diverse news around the Central Valley as part of the Report for America program. As a Stockton native, Franco is proud to cover stories within her community and report a variety of coverage. She is a San Jose State University alumna with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism. In her collegiate years she was Managing Editor for the Spartan Daily. From her time at the Spartan Daily she helped lead her staff to California College Media Awards and a General Excellence first place. Victoria encourages readers to email her story tips and ideas at victoria.franco@baycitynews.com.