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Calvin Duncan poses for a photo with two stacks of legal paperwork filed under "Notification of Direct Appeal Decision" and Non-unanimous Jury Verdict issues" in his Central Business District office in New Orleans, La., Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. Duncan, a former Angola inmate has pushed the United States Supreme Court, through repeated petitions on behalf of inmates convicted on non-unanimous jury counts, to overturn the state's unusual law allowing murder convictions of a 10 to 2 jury serious felony cases. Voters approved an amendment to the state constitution on Nov. 6, 2018 to abolish the nonunanimous jury rule.

Twenty-three years ago, three men murdered my fiancé and left me to die with nine bullets in my body. My baby was four months old. Doctors told me I would never walk again. Today, I’m walking around my neighborhood, making sure everyone will vote on Oct. 12.

A lot has happened between then and now. There was more trauma and fear, but there was also therapy, resilience, and grief about the ways that the system had failed me. This grief fueled me. I joined Voice of the Experienced, VOTE. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from being a member of VOTE, a grassroots organization run by and for formerly incarcerated people like me, it’s that we have power.

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Until this year, Louisiana was one of two states still allowing nonunanimous juries to convict people, a Jim Crow-era law. Many people from my community were locked up despite not everyone thinking they were guilty. To right this wrong, I joined the Unanimous Jury Coalition. Our goal was to pass Amendment 2.

I knew so many people who didn’t vote, who thought that their vote doesn’t count. And I was determined to get every last one of them to the polls. Needless to say, we had a record turn out. Almost 65% of Louisianans voted “yes,” and we won.

That’s why I vote. This week brought the 54th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the law that aims to protect everyone’s right to vote, especially people of color. But the VRA hasn’t protected everyone. For decades, formerly incarcerated people have been excluded from the voting booths. In fact, until March 1, many of us returning home from Louisiana prisons weren’t able to cast a vote, despite our positive contributions to our communities.

Now, anyone who: is off papers, is on probation, or has been on parole for at least five years can vote, and we need every one of them to exercise their right.

We as formerly incarcerated people have the power to change local, state, and national laws. We have the power to write a bill and fight for it to become law. We also have the power to vote the people who work at the Capitol into office.

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Hear this: your vote is your voice. It counts. It counts no matter who you are, but it especially counts if you are formerly incarcerated, because Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state. One of the best ways to change that reality is by casting our ballots.

We have an important statewide election coming up in about 80 days. In order to vote in it, you must be registered by Sept. 11 in person, or Sept. 21 online. Now is the time to be heard.

Rena Vereen

VOTE

New Orleans