Voting for first time, @Wallo267 has some advice for fellow returning citizens and politicians | Helen Ubiñas
Us returning citizens we need to get together and we need to start pushing the issue and we need to start locking it down and start getting out here and creating a voting bloc and start voting. We have power.
Wallace Peeples, better known to the internet as @Wallo267, has done a lot in the short 21 months since he's been out of prison.
He gave a TedX talk in Atlanta, forgiving the man who killed his brother.
He grew the social media following he started in prison on a couple of contraband phones into a motivational movement with a quarter of a million Instagram followers.
One thing he hadn't done until Tuesday, though, was vote. Ever.
"First time in my life," said Wallo, 39, who was just a teenager when he started to serve 20 years for armed robberies. "You don't think about voting when you're running the streets."
He got to his polling place early — though not as early as his 89-year-old grandmother, who called him a couple of times to see if he'd voted yet.
"On my way," he told her.
But before he headed into Bethune Elementary in North Philadelphia, his alma mater, he did what he's done since getting out of prison: turned his phone toward himself to record one of the videos that routinely get three to four million impressions, on a slow week.
"When I was in jail, me and the homies, we used to watch CNN — we used to watch C-SPAN, see certain bills get passed. We didn't have a voice," he said into his camera.
"If you was in prison in Pennsylvania, and you come home, you can vote. Us returning citizens, we need to get together and we need to start pushing the issue, and we need to start locking it down and start getting out here and creating a voting bloc and start voting. We have power. There's power in the vote. I'm going in here to vote, man, and I encourage you to vote."
As soon as he posted the video, people responded — many saying they didn't know they could vote.
"I'm a convicted felon in PA."
"We can vote with felonies?"
In some states, including Florida, you can't, though fingers crossed that by the time this column hits Wednesday's newspapers, a ballot amendment could restore voting rights to 1.5 million felons. (Update: It did.) This kind of disenfranchisement, according to the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates criminal justice reform, affects an estimated one in 40 adult Americans, or 2.5 percent of the total U.S. voting-age population. Enough to swing elections.
It's a different story in Pennsylvania, where in Philadelphia alone an estimated 300,000 returning citizens can vote. Just because they can doesn't mean that they know they can, or that they do. The state doesn't track the number of formerly incarcerated who are registered. Advocates I talked to said getting those numbers has been a challenge.
But just like states that are fighting to restore disenfranchised voters rights, what is clear is the potential power in this voting bloc, said Jondhi Harrell, executive director and founder of the Center for Returning Citizens. Harrell, who did a 20-year stint in federal prison, formed the Bloc Party, a political action committee aimed at energizing returning citizens as a voting base.
"Any time I speak, I say that Pennsylvania is one of 17 states where you can vote as soon as you walk out of prison," Harrell said. "That's something that at this point you should know, but obviously, not everybody does."
Returning citizens aren't just disenfranchised, Harrell said, but disorganized. They're also distrustful of politicians who claim to want to speak and work on their behalf, at least at election time.
"The messenger matters as much as the message," said Wallo, who clearly knows a little something about cutting through the noise to get out his message. Proof of that is the spike in voter registrations in Tennessee after Taylor Swift went on Instagram to encourage her more than 112 million followers to vote.
We don't have a Taylor Swift in Philly. But we have a Meek Mill, who has taken to his own Instagram page to encourage his followers to vote. And we have @Wallo267.
With his first vote on the books, Wallo and I walked up the street to grab some tea. On the way, we passed a young man who recognized him.
Wallo warmly greeted him. "What's up, bro, how you doing?"
A few minutes later, the young man ran up behind us.
"I'm sorry, my bad," he said. "I couldn't walk past you. I watch your videos every day, they inspire me. I'm 19. I have two jobs, an apartment, I go to school, and every morning I watch your videos, they inspire me. I just appreciate everything you do. That's real. You're real."
Real enough, I hope, to get his followers to the polls, if not in this election, then in 2020.