Rapper Remy Ma knows firsthand what it is to have the right to vote, lose it due to incarceration, and regain the privilege after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo restored voting rights to felons on parole. In August 2014, Remy Ma was released from prison after serving six years. Now she is an advocate for felon voting rights.
In every election, millions of Americans go unheard because they are unable to participate in the electoral process because of their unlawful pasts. According to the Sentencing Project, 6.1 million people could not vote in the 2016 elections because of felony disenfranchisement. The numbers for African Americans are more alarming. The organization reports that 1 in 13 African Americans lost their voting rights due to felonies, versus 1 in 56 non-black voters.
The harsh reality is that there are more black people incarcerated in American than there were enslaved in 1850.
During the BET News midterm election special Our Vote. Our Power with Angela Rye, Remy Ma shared what it was like to be in prison during the 2008 presidential election and how that sparked her interest in learning more about the criminal justice system and politics.
“When you look back at the history of what black people went through to be able to vote and what women went through to be able to vote; and I have both strikes (I’m black and I’m a woman) I wasn’t utilizing it. I was one of those people who said, ‘it doesn’t matter they’re going to pick who they want to pick and that ain’t got nothing to do with me,” said Remy Ma.
But she soon learned that that mindset was just as damaging as those who “get handed” positions because of people who don’t vote.
“They let us out to watch the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals but everyone was locked down when Obama was running for office. We weren’t allowed to see that because they were scared that there might be an uprising,” she recalled.
After being released, she vowed to vote in every election but soon realized she wasn’t able to because she is on parole.
“In order for me to get permission to vote I had to write a letter to this person and I had to write a letter to that person,” she said. But that all changed when Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to restore voting rights for felons on parole earlier this year.
“I was happy that I can vote. But then I realized he’s also running for office. It made me think even more… If I paid my debt to society, what does that have to do with my impact to vote?” she added.
Felony disenfranchisement, also known as disfranchisement, was formed in the late 1860s during the time when the 15th Amendment was being contested against giving African Americans the right to vote. In short, over 100 years’ worth of laws was put into place to keep black people in jail and unable to participate politically. And those laws have been masked and passed time and time again, which still affects black people.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures;
- In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees, or restitution before their rights are restored as well.
- In 14 states and the District of Columbia, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release.
- In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.
- In 13 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, or face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) before voting rights can be restored.
Although Remy Ma had to learn the hard way, she said that she’s grateful for being able to have her eyes opened to the issues that she never cared about had she not gone through them. “I had to have all of the [rights] taken away and slowly get it back for me to appreciate the gift to be able to decide what goes on around me.”
That is why she is rallying others to vote. “People really don’t know what they have until it’s gone or their life depends on it.”