At 54 years old, William Lewis is a first-time voter. It’s not that Lewis wasn’t interested in voting before this election cycle — for more than three decades, he was denied the right to vote because of several felony convictions and a prison sentence for armed robbery.

But Lewis, who lives in Farmington, said he’s trying to move on from his past and to live a better life. 

“Having done a crime or having done something bad doesn’t make that person a bad person, it doesn’t make you less of an American or less patriotic,” he said. “We’ve paid our debt for crimes committed and served the time.” 

After he was released from prison earlier this year, Lewis now works as an advocate to help returning citizens like himself re-enter society with less difficulty. He says his duty is to represent himself and others with similar life experiences by voting.

“For most of my life, I’ve been in this subculture where I’ve been like, ‘the heck with it all,’” he said. “But if I’m sitting around complaining about this issue and that then I have a duty to do something, and going to vote is the minimum.”

Lewis was born in Michigan but grew up in Los Angeles where he was in and out of prisons since the age of 18. Because of his past convictions, he thought he had lost the right to vote entirely. 

While Lewis lived in California, people who had been incarcerated could not vote unless they were out of prison and finished with any parole, a period that could last years. In 2020, state law changed to allow people convicted of felonies to vote while on parole.

Lewis moved back to Detroit in 1998 and started becoming politically involved. He helped people get registered to vote to support presidential candidate Al Gore for the 2000 election but he didn’t know that he was eligible to vote in Michigan.

About 4.6 million Americans with felony convictions are unable to vote because of state level voting restrictions. Eleven states deny voting rights to people with felony convictions even after they complete their sentences, including parole and probation.

A few months after that election in 2000, after unsuccessfully trying to find a stable job, Lewis was arrested and convicted for armed robbery in December 2000. He served 22 years in prison.

“I never tried to vote,” he said. “But then I learned during my incarceration that in Michigan I could vote, and so I could very much look forward to getting out and having my chance.”

Lewis wanted to exercise his right to vote in order to have input about issues that matter to him, including how his life was impacted by the criminal justice system. Previously incarcerated people in Michigan are eligible to vote immediately after their release from prison. 

When he was released this past May, Lewis had his eyes already set on the primary election in August. 

But for returning citizens, there can be a lot of red tape in the way of actually registering to vote. Lewis wasn’t sure if he had time or the proper documentation to register. 

Two men chat lightheartedly in office, one sitting at computer desk, one standing
William Lewis with coworker Edward Galloway at the Pontiac office of Center for Employment Opportunities. The national nonprofit provides employment services to people newly released from prisons. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

To register to vote in Michigan, you must present a document with your name and current address to the Secretary of State or local clerk’s office to prove your Michigan residency.

In Michigan prisons, all inmates including Lewis get a prison ID that includes their photo and name. Returning citizens can use this identification to help prove their identity for a state ID or driver’s license.

But prison IDs aren’t valid documents alone when registering to vote. Unlike a state ID or driver’s license, an additional document providing proof of residence is needed with a prison ID when registering to vote, said a SOS spokesperson. 

When Lewis was released from prison he already had a state ID and a birth certificate, thanks to a state program that provides many returning citizens with those forms of identification upon release. But he didn’t have a social security number or a driver’s license.

“As the primary got closer, I realized that because the address I was using didn’t match the address on my ID, it could very easily result in a bunch of confusion about what district I was supposed to vote in and questions of my legitimacy to vote at all,” he said.

Lewis, with help from his family, applied for a Social Security card and waited a month for it to be mailed to his current address so he could apply for a driver’s license. That happened in July. The state automatically registers driver’s license applicants 18 years and older to vote unless they opt out. 

A few weeks later, Lewis cast his very first ballot in the August primary. He said he felt like his voice was heard when voting and that it allowed him to elevate issues important to him. 

Now, he helps inform other returning citizens about their right to vote and how to navigate getting and staying out of prison through his work at the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a national nonprofit that provides employment services to people newly released from prisons. 

The organization sent a letter in April to the state House in support of four bills that help provide returning citizens with vital documents upon their release, making it easier for them to get employed and register to vote.

Lewis is one of many advocating for the pending legislation, introduced last year.

“The more I’ve been involved with (CEO), the more I saw I really wanted to help people,” he said. “I was blessed, I got a lot of family who helped me out, but I know a lot of guys coming out who have nothing.”

Lewis is looking forward to voting for the first time in a general election next week, but said he still needs to finish researching all the proposals and judges on the ballot.

“I’ve done my research with some of the politicians running and looked at their records, and got as much information as I can on their position with regards to returning citizens, to people still incarcerated, to people who the criminal justice system has impacted and see how they lean on those kinds of issues,” he said.

Malak (she/her) believes in local journalism that provides people with verified and comprehensive information. Her favorite places to unwind and pick up a new read are at Detroit’s bookstores and libraries.