It’s a Wednesday afternoon, shortly after school has let out, in one of Philadelphia’s most notorious neighborhoods: Nicetown. Over the last 30 days, more violent crimes have occurred here, home to 18,000 Philadelphians, than in any other neighborhood. A mother and her two sons stroll by barbershops, churches and single-family homes, before stopping in front of a window display on Germantown Avenue, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. On the left, placards about employment and re-entry services; on the right, must-know details about the city’s upcoming primary elections on May 16. There’s a reference to ex-offenders and their voting rights in Pennsylvania, which prompts one of the young boys, who can’t be older than 7 or 8, to ask his mom why prisoners have their vote taken from them. His mother answers: “The question is: What did you take from somebody for your vote to be taken? Cause they didn’t take your vote for nothing.”
Misinformation. It can be a viral form of voter suppression. That’s particularly true in the case of the voting rights of Americans with criminal records, a topic that generates unique confusion among the public and election officials alike. The 14th Amendment gives state governments the power to decide on the voting rights of felons. On the spectrum of state laws regarding voting with a criminal record — spanning from the most severe states (like Florida, where a felony conviction results in a loss of voting rights for life) to the most liberal (like Maine, which allows prisoners to cast ballots) — Pennsylvania is actually on the more progressive end. Pennsylvanians on probation and parole are eligible to vote, as are ex-offenders, and anybody who will be released from prison by Election Day. In other words, if you’re not in a jail cell, you’re a potential voter.
But misinformation can have a deterring effect on turnout. And it’s not the only hurdle to get returning citizens engaged in the electoral process.
“Most folks know that they can vote, but the apathy is there,” says Jondhi Harrell, executive director and founder of The Center for Returning Citizens (TCRC), the nonprofit in Nicetown with the wallpapered windows. “They don’t vote because they don’t believe in the system and don’t really care about what’s going on. There are 300,000 returning citizens in the city of Philadelphia and we’re disorganized.”
His latest project, the Bloc Party, is a new political action committee aiming to increase this constituency’s political engagement in Philadelphia. It’s not the first time that someone in the city has tried to energize returning citizens as a voting base. In 2012, the Returning Citizens Voter Movement, led by local advocate Malissa Gamble and State Rep. Tony Payton Jr., tried to add 10,000 returning citizens to the voter rolls. In 2015, Bill Cobb of nonprofit Redeemed, another returning citizen advocacy group, tried to get 20,000 more. But while the Bloc Party will be registering voters too, Harrell says it also plans to become a lobbying and policy force.
“The Bloc Party party is going to write legislation and ask our state representatives and state senators to sponsor legislation. We have to be ALEC,” says Harrell, referring to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a nonprofit that’s responsible for the language of state laws across the country. Over time, Harrell wants the Bloc Party to not only represent the values and interests of returning citizens, but also their families and currently incarcerated individuals. It’s a population that Harrell knows well, through his work at TCRC, and because he’s been in prison himself. Through the TCRC, he has a communication pipeline in place to spread the word about his nascent PAC. “We have over 560 prisoners in the corrections that we send material to regularly,” he says. “We also have a network of formerly incarcerated people who are on the streets. Some have been here for a while, some are fresh out.” Harrell has begun to reach out to both local and national groups to raise money.
Plus, there couldn’t be a more important time to do this organizing. The Bloc Party officially registered in Harrisburg in March; in May, Philadelphians will vote in one of the most wide-open District Attorney races in recent memory. For years, the office has been the scourge of progressives dead set on reforming the city’s criminal justice system. Philadelphia has the highest incarceration rate out of any of the 10 largest U.S. cities, a pattern of conviction that garnered former District Attorney Lynne Abraham (who served from 1991 to 2010) the nickname “The Deadliest DA.” Her successor, Seth Williams, has chosen not to run for reelection, and he was indicted on federal corruption charges in March.
“It’s the perfect time,” says Harrell. Not only because of the DA’s race, but due to the progressive fervor that’s been palpable in the city for several years, exhibited in protests and political rhetoric. As a candidate, current Mayor Jim Kenney ran on a platform that included ending stop-and-frisk and eliminating cash bail. In his first year in office, he announced a groundbreaking $3.5 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the prison population by 34 percent in three years. Although Harrell describes Kenney’s first 15 months in office as a “disappointment” for advocates for criminal justice reform, he’s convinced that real change could be knocking on the door.
Harrell is supporting DA candidate Larry Krasner, a longtime civil rights attorney in the city, and says the Bloc Party endorsed him.
“I think the only thing that we can expect is to not only bring in a new DA, but to bring in many new lawyers to replace the [assistant] DAs,” Harrell says. “By my estimation, you need to deconstruct the culture that Lynne Abraham started and Seth Williams continued and corrupted.”
From left, Jondhi Harrell and Anthony Dickerson, co-founders of the Bloc Party, and Five Mualimm-ak, CEO of Incarcerated Nation
“I think you’d probably find a pretty depressing voter-turnout statistic, even in Pennsylvania, for people who’ve served their time and their probation,” says David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of 70, an election watchdog group in Philadelphia. Campaigns have a hard enough time turning out the millennials that got Barack Obama elected, no less someone who would have every reason to detach from normative systems like the electoral process. “There is no upside for a campaign in chasing this population down and educating them on elections,” says Thornburgh. “Campaigns are very practical, short-term enterprises interested in winning an election.” In other words, he says, invigorating the returning citizen vote will have to rely on the nonprofit and advocacy worlds.
Even the smallest difference in turnout could be decisive in this DA race. There’s an unusually large number of candidates, the city’s Democratic Party decided not to endorse anyone, and there’s been no reliable polling to indicate a front-runner. “This is a clusterfuck of a six- or seven-way primary. A small, strategic buy of $50,000 could be enough to tip the scales,” says veteran political operative TJ Hurst, now a managing partner of Jefferson’s List. “If you’re working with a population that doesn’t vote normally, like returning citizens, and you’re turning them out for a candidate like never before, that could be enough to turn an election.”
That said, Hurst cautions, “building an organization — an infrastructure — for something that stimulates long-lasting change is not cheap. Especially when you’re talking about a multicycle race.”
In the short term, Harrell will be looking to foster coalitions — with organizations such as Working Families, Color of Change and Reclaim Philly — to assist with registration and canvassing efforts. By the general election in November, he hopes the Bloc Party will have enough political might to vote out between five and 10 judges who’ve been given poor grades by Judicial Watch. “We want returning citizens all over the city to know that now there is a political action committee and a movement that speaks to their values, understand them and will move forward on their behalf,” says Harrell.
For more information on the Bloc Party, those in Philadelphia can visit Dilworth Park on April 13 for a voter registration rally starting at 5 p.m, or call 215-225-1638.
This article is one in an occasional series, part of a regionwide collaborative news project about the challenges — and solutions — of prison reentry in Philadelphia. Click here to read more work by our partners.
Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow. He has contributed writing and research for The Atlantic and Philadelphia magazine, among other publications. He’s appeared on NPR’s “On The Media” and “All Things Considered.” He lives in Philadelphia.