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McCallum: Voting Behind Bars

A popular catch phrase that gets bandied about a lot is “the myth of Vermont exceptionalism.” We in the Green Mountain State like to believe that we do health, education and quality of life better than most. And I can personally vouch for the fact that we really are pretty exceptional when it comes to voting. Behind bars, that is. Only Maine and Vermont allow felons to vote while incarcerated - and this largely hidden population takes it seriously. And I know, because I taught in Vermont’s high security prison for men through two presidential elections. In 2004, George W. Bush was running against John Kerry. Most of the men in my classes had never voted on the outside, but once they were behind the razor wire they learned that their vote was their voice.

They figured that out in my social studies classes, and I urged them to register through their town clerks and vote by absentee ballot. When ballots began arriving in the mail, every guy came in to tell me his exciting news. These men, who often felt voiceless and unheard, but who aspired to do better, were taking a step closer to being responsible citizens.

They were locked up but they weren’t locked out.

An uninformed vote can be a wasted vote, so we talked about the voting process and I invited then state senator Anthony Pollina to Current Events class to talk about issues and have the guys meet a real live politician. He sat on a desk with his sleeves rolled up and answered questions. He encouraged them to get involved in their communities and continue voting when they’d served their time and been released.

In 2008, I registered inmates to vote in the landmark election between Barack Obama and John McCain. And I kept my politics to myself, even though the guys shared their opinions loudly and often. Years down the road, when Obama was in the midst of his second term as president, I’d left the prison to work in another town.

One day, while crossing a parking lot, I was flagged down by a guy driving an old car with a loud muffler. He yelled out the window, “Hey, remember me?” He was a former student of mine who was finally out and holding down a job. “And guess what,” he grinned. “Thanks to prison, I’m a now a voter!”

He winked, gunned the engine and drove off as I gave silent thanks.

Truly exceptional.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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