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I Was Threatened With Two Years in Prison for Voting

My name is Keith Sellars, and I live in Haw River, North Carolina. I’m the father of four beautiful girls and one very protective son.

I was born and raised in Alamance County, North Carolina, and would call no other place home. I’m one of the so-called “Alamance 12” — the 12 people, nine of us black, who were unjustly prosecuted for voting in the 2016 election while on parole.

I’ve voted many times in my life. It started back in my 20s, when I realized that I wanted to make difference. I wasn’t happy with the way things were, especially for young people of color like me.

I was only 15 years old when I ended up in jail for the first time. As many stories like mine begin, I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, surrounded by bad influences, with very few options.

I quickly realized that the people around me didn’t have jobs, because there simply weren’t any jobs for them. And if there were jobs, discrimination meant they wouldn’t even get an interview.

To get by, sometimes I broke the law. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but we were just trying to make a living — and surviving has been criminalized for some of us.

It was during these years of going in and out of court when I learned that our legal system didn’t treat everyone the same. I remember white folks who’d done much worse things than I had getting away with a slap on the wrist, while dark-skinned men like me got locked up on harsh sentences.

One in three black men in the United States has been charged with a felony. In North Carolina, black men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men. And here, as in most states, that can mean harsh restrictions on your right to vote. So even if we think these laws are unfair, the opportunity to influence them is taken from our hands.

These experiences led me to want to get involved in the political process. I voted in the 2008 and 2012 elections. I had trouble with the law again after that, but I was committed to turning my life around. I decided to practice my right to vote once again in 2016. I was told that I could and that I should, because it was the most important election of my life.

I didn’t realize at the moment that I would be targeted, prosecuted, and threatened with yet another felony — and two years in prison — for exercising that right.

For me it’s important that we call this what it is: voter suppression. Other policies — including a proposed voter ID constitutional amendment, polling site closures and early voting restrictions, and partisan and racial gerrymandering — hope to do the same.

I’ve suffered severe consequences to exercise my right to vote. Is it because politicians are afraid of poor and working people like me actually having a say in how we run things?

Keith Sellars, one of the 12 Alamance County, NC residents prosecuted for voting in 2016, organizes with Down Home North Carolina, a multiracial coalition for economic and racial justice.

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