‘Our voice still matters’: Philly looks to register people on probation and parole to vote

Diane Duffin learns how to use a voting machine with the help of Michelle Montalvo of the City Commissioners Office. Duffin registered to vote for the first time after learning that a conviction did not prevent her from voting in Pennsylvania. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Diane Duffin learns how to use a voting machine with the help of Michelle Montalvo of the City Commissioners Office. Duffin registered to vote for the first time after learning that a conviction did not prevent her from voting in Pennsylvania. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Diane Duffin pays attention to politics. She’s worried about federal funding for Medicaid and Social Security, and is skeptical of President Donald Trump. But Duffin, 37, has never voted. She assumed her criminal history and her current probation status made her ineligible.

Duffin was surprised to find out Tuesday morning she is eligible to vote. She was even more surprised by who told her — an employee with the Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department. She was at the department’s Center City building for a probation meeting when she came upon half a dozen employees registering people to vote.

“I didn’t think we could vote, but now I found out we can vote,” Duffin said, smiling after filling out a paper registration form. “Our voice still matters.”

On Tuesday the Philadelphia Adult Probation and Parole Department teamed up with the City Commissioners’ Office to host a voter registration and education drive.

Shannon Cooper of the City Commissioners Office shows Karen Wiley how to use a voting machine during a voter registration event in the lobby of the Adult Probation and Parole Office at 7th and Market streets. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The effort, which is new this year, is designed to reach unregistered voters on probation or parole.

In Pennsylvania, people with felony convictions can vote following the completion of their sentence, even if they are on probation or parole. The state is one of fourteen that automatically restores voting rights upon a person’s release from prison, according to the group Nonprofit VOTE.

Darlene Miller, chief of Philadelphia’s Probation and Parole Department, says that isn’t widely known.

“One of the things we realized within our population is that they don’t realize they have the right to vote,” she said. “They think if they are on probation, or if they have been convicted of a felony, they don’t have that right.”

Darlene V. Miller is Chief Probation Officer for Philadelphia County. Encouraging parolees to register and vote is part of helping them to become lawful citizens, she said. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The Philadelphia Probation and Parole department currently supervises 35,785 people. There are 11,705 people in the city are on state parole supervision. (It is possible to be on state and county probation concurrently.)

An estimated 4 to 5% of the adult population in Pennsylvania had a felony conviction as of 2010.

Miller said the misperception about who is eligible to vote in Pennsylvania isn’t held just by people with criminal records.

“We just received some correspondence from one of the senators who was not aware that you had that ability here,” she said. (Miller would not disclose the name of the politician.)

Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill said last year that he was unsure if he was able to vote because he had “been on probation since he was 18.”

In the lobby of the Probation and Parole building on Market Street, clipboard-wielding employees signed up unregistered voters and walked them through how to use Philadelphia’s new voting machines at a steady clip. Christopher Rojas, who was there for a probation hearing, said he knew he was eligible to vote, but said he lost all forms of identification when he was incarcerated.

“So I was like, I might as well not try to vote, because I know they are going to tell me ‘no,’” Rojas said.

Cristofer Rojas, 21, registers to vote in the lobby of the Adult Probation and Parole Office at 7th and Market streets, where a voter registration event was held to make parolees aware that their convictions do not prevent them from voting in Pennsylvania. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Rojas registered to vote Tuesday with the aid of Probation and Parole employees, who were able to pull his personal information from their system.

Curtis Garner, who was there for a probation hearing, said he had been a registered voter since he was 18, and that he paid close attention to local and national politics.

“I care about affordable housing, I care about affordable healthcare,” he said, “and I care about multibillion dollar corporations like the Philadelphia City Parking Authority running the city of Philadelphia instead of the City Council running it!”

Miller said the department hoped to register about 150 new voters Tuesday, but at the event’s end at 3 p.m., that number stood at 33. A spokesperson said the department had registered 40 new voters in a “dry run” that took place last month.

The Probation and Parole Department hopes to hold similar events annually going forward.

The deadline to register to vote in Pennsylvania’s upcoming general election is Oct. 7.

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