Formerly incarcerated man and first-time voter energizes others to cast their ballots

Lester Young will be voting for the first time at age 48. He’s ready to wait in line on Election Day, and he’ll arrive with several other formerly incarcerated men to send a clear message.

“We’re going to just stand out there and do what we need to do to inspire the men and women inside of the prison system,” Young said. “One of the most powerful rights that you have is the right to vote. So, by using my story and being visible, hopefully that will inspire others.”

Young is one of thousands of men and women impacted by the state’s laws that limit an ex-felon’s right to vote, according to numbers from the NAACP.

South Carolina is one of 20 states that doesn’t grant the right to vote until parole is completed. Comparatively, 17 states only limit the right to vote while a person is incarcerated. Eleven states mandate a post-sentence waiting period to vote. In Maine, Vermont and Washington D.C., voting rights are not impacted by criminal charges.

Young educated himself on how to restore his right to vote while he was in prison.

To receive a pardon in South Carolina, a person must pay a $100 fee, obtain three reputable letters to speak of their character, and stay out of criminal activity for five years. Although Young said the financial barriers pose a hardship for many seeking a pardon, he was determined to secure a life that would provide the most freedom to himself and his daughter.

“I was 19 years old selling drugs in the streets. I never thought that politics played a part in my life until I went to prison and lived the effects that politics had,” Young said. “The prison director is appointed by the governor, and the governor is appointed by the people, so I tell people that if they want to change their conditions, they need to understand their power in voting.”

South Carolina’s policies have contributed to the disenfranchisement of more than 48,000 residents, according to the ACLU. Of those 48,000 individuals, 64% are Black, despite Black voters comprising only 27 % of the state’s voting population. Young says these disparities come as no surprise.

“We know that historically, voting policies have been put in place to suppress Black and brown people, Young said. “So, it’s no coincidence that even after a person completes their prison sentence they face all of these hurdles that hinder them from mobilizing.”

Already, voters are breaking turnout records in South Carolina, likely motivated by a tightening Senate race and a polarizing presidential election. But Young says he wants to wait in line on Election Day.

Despite long waits at early voting polls and the courts flip-flopping on absentee ballot rules, Young says nothing will discourage him from voting.

“People have literally died for the right to vote, so if you don’t do anything else, honor the people who went before you.” Young said. “For me, regardless of what South Carolina has in place, and whatever state policies are in place, we still have to persevere through that challenge.”

Young’s passion for bolstering the voices of formerly incarcerated people also encouraged him to start a nonprofit organization, Path 2 Redemption. The organization, which Young began while in prison, focuses on reacclimating people to their communities and educating them on the policy issues that will affect their lives. While Young said voter registration is clearly important, right now he’s focusing on educating people about how they can support policies that will directly affect their lives.

“The current narrative sees people who have been incarcerated as incapable of changing. Policies have been written with that same thought in mind,” Young said. “The policies that we have are written to keep people bound and tied into a system. We have to create more policies that see redeemable and rehabilitative qualities in human beings.”