Felon Disenfranchisement: Barring People from the Polls Because of Criminal Convictions

By Edwin B. – Criminal Justice Intern

The right to vote is one of the fundamental rights of every American entrenched in the United States constitution. However, millions of Americans are being denied this protected right because of different regulations each US state implements. The millions of Americans I am referring to are the convicted ex-felons in America. A felony is defined as any criminal offense that results in a prison sentence of one year or longer, or even punishable by death. When an individual is charged with a felony, a severe consequence of felony disenfranchisement, or the denial of the right to vote, is also given. The length of time felons lose the right to vote and how they regain the right to vote is determined state by state. Felon disenfranchisement is an outdated practice that is in need of revision due to the negative impact it has had on society. The reasons against felon disenfranchisement certainly outweigh the benefits of continuing this broken system negatively impacting US communities.

Restoration of voting rights after a felony conviction varies state by state, creating a confusing and unfair system over a protected right. Depending on what state an offender has committed a felony, there are four main ways voting rights are restored. In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated and receive automatic restoration after release. In 16 States, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration and for a specific amount of time after. Voting rights are restored after completion of parole and/or probation and after paying any fines, fees, or restitution. In 11 states, restoration of voting rights is even more difficult. In these 11 states, ex-felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for certain crimes and require a governor’s pardon for their restoration of voting rights. They must also face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence, including parole and probation. These states also require additional actions that must be completed before their voting rights can be restored. In the remaining two states (Maine and Vermont) and in the District of Columbia, felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated.

The issue with having different methods of voting rights restoration is it creates an unfair system to those who receive a more difficult path to restoration. The same crime committed should have the same consequences, regardless of location. Citizens who have completed their felony sentence have paid their debt to society and should be free of past consequences. In order to successfully reintegrate back to society, the formerly incarcerated are expected to abide by the law and become a model citizens, which includes actions like finding employment and paying taxes. If the government expects them to abide by the rule of law as any other citizen would, ex-felons should have all their rights restored to be as equal as any other citizen. Communities who vote are better off in important ways, including stronger social connections, better employment, and greater community well-being.

Felony DisenfranchisementVoting disenfranchisement is also severely disproportionate across race. According to The Sentencing Project, 1 in every 16 African Americans has lost their voting rights due to felony disenfranchisement laws, 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population. The Latinx community has also been severely impacted by disenfranchisement laws. It is estimated by The Sentencing Project that over 560,000 Latinx Americans, over 2 percent of the voting eligible population, are disenfranchised. Recent elections also saw the Latino population being targeted by newly introduced voter suppression laws and policies that create barriers for Latino voters. The Kapor Center found alleged noncitizen voter purges of registered voters in 16 states, which target naturalized citizens, and may violated equal protection guarantees. Proof of citizenship requirements for voter registration (in effect in Georgia and pending in Alabama and Arizona) create expensive documentation requirements for prospective voter registrants. These laws target naturalized citizens, many of Latino descent. Restrictive photo ID laws in 9 states similarly impose costs in time and money for millions of Latino citizens who do not have the required documents.

Historically, felony disenfranchisement laws were written into state constitutions and statutes to limit the political power of African Americans and other minority groups. The disproportionate rates of criminal punishment by race continue today to systematically reduce access to the vote and the political power in minority communities. Felony disenfranchisement laws are currently set at the state level, resulting in wide disparities in access to the ballot state to state. Due to these disenfranchisement laws being enacted decades ago, there is now years’ worth of data and evidence that suggest it was meant to “legally” discriminate against certain individuals based on their race.

Felon disenfranchisement laws are a form of punishment that create complex problems for ex-felons and their community. They create unnecessary barriers for people trying to vote. Our democracy works best when all eligible voters can participate and have their voices heard. Reforming the current felony disenfranchisement laws would benefit the millions of Americans negatively impacted by these laws.