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Michigan will now automatically restore voting rights to people who leave prison

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Michigan is the first state in the nation to restore voting rights automatically to people who are released from prison. State officials say it helps former inmates return to society. Michelle Jokisch Polo from member station WKAR in East Lansing reports.

MICHELLE JOKISCH POLO, BYLINE: Malijah Gee was first incarcerated in a Michigan prison when he was about 17 years old.

MALIJAH GEE: I came here as a youth, so I was never able to vote.

JOKISCH POLO: After spending 36 years behind bars, he's expected to be released early next year. He's excited to vote for the very first time in the state's presidential primary in February.

GEE: So now getting out and having that ability, that opportunity is just - it's a great feeling. And one of the things that, you know, we need to do in here is to now start making prisoners - helping prisoners become aware of this bill.

JOKISCH POLO: The bill Gee is talking about is a new state law. Michigan already allows people with felony convictions to vote once they complete their sentences. But now the state will go one step further and expand automatic registration to people in prison once they are released. State Representative Penelope Tsernoglou is a Democrat who sponsored the bill that was signed into law earlier this month. She says the goal of the bill is to improve access for what has historically been a disenfranchised population.

PENELOPE TSERNOGLOU: Michigan actually has a really good rate of voter registration, but we wanted to increase that even more. And the incarcerated population is one of the populations that is least likely to be registered to vote.

JOKISCH POLO: Before this law, the Michigan Department of Corrections was already working with the Secretary of State to register incarcerated people to vote when they're released. It's part of a larger initiative to help inmates get vital documents like birth certificates and state IDs. Kyle Kaminski is the spokesperson for the state Department of Corrections. He says the law will ensure the initiative continues regardless of who is in office.

KYLE KAMINSKI: Having put these processes in place, we don't want to see them be eliminated at some point in the future. So this will - what the legislation does is it'll ensure that everybody leaving prison in the future will still have that opportunity to be registered.

JOKISCH POLO: Khyle Craine has been leading this work at the Michigan Secretary of State. She says it's not that incarcerated people don't want to participate in the democratic process but that many don't think that they can. And that's because voting rights for people with felony convictions vary from state to state.

KHYLA CRAINE: They don't want to jeopardize their ability to remain outside of the criminal justice system once they have been released. So a lot of folks that we hear from just don't participate because they don't want to jeopardize their parole status or any other kind of issues with law enforcement.

JOKISCH POLO: Craine says this law will help dispel some of that confusion and be a part of the first step in helping formerly incarcerated people reenter society. Malijah Gee says when he regains his rights back next year, he's got research to do before deciding who to vote for. For NPR News, I'm Michelle Jokisch Polo in East Lansing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As WKAR's Bilingual Latinx Stories Reporter, Michelle reports in both English and Spanish on stories affecting Michigan's Latinx community. Michelle is also the voice of WKAR's weekend news programs.