In the nation that calls itself “the beacon of democracy,” millions of citizens are denied the right to vote. Voter disenfranchisement includes convicted felons in prisons, on community supervision, and non-convicted jail inmates awaiting trial.
The U.S. stands in contrast to 26 European nations that partially protect incarcerated citizens’ right to vote, and 18 countries that grant prisoners the vote regardless of the offense. The European Court of Human Rights has firmly defended voting rights for prisoners, calling voting bans a violation of human rights. Our Canadian neighbors grant the right to vote to people in prison. South Africa has granted voting rights to prisoners since 1999, based on a firm belief that voting rights of every citizen is a badge of dignity and personhood.
America stands in contrast to most democratic nations in denying voting rights to millions of citizens. Only Maine and Vermont grant prisoners voting rights. The 2 million-plus residents of federal and state prisons are denied their democratic rights. The Democracy Restoration Act, a federal bill which would provide the franchise to all upon release from prison, has been rejected in Congress a number of times since 2008.
Efforts have been made in several states to lift bans against criminal offenders’ voting rights. Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to more than 172,000 people individually. In California, more than 50,000 people serving felony sentences had their voting rights restored via Assembly Bill 2466. This did not extend the franchise to those incarcerated in state and federal prisons in California but did apply to the right of incarcerated citizens in the state’s jails. Florida voters supported a referendum to restore voting rights to convicted felons, but the legislature blocked it until former offenders repay all court-ordered fines and payments.
Despite these initiatives the fact remains that the United States, home of nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, denies to them a right that is foundational to democracy.
HOW DID WE GET HERE? Denying offenders’ voting rights is as old as the American prison. Kentucky was the first to disenfranchise people convicted of a crime in a 1792 Constitutional provision. Other states soon followed. The Fifteenth Amendment that endowed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude” briefly halted the practice during the Reconstruction Era. Mississippi (in 1898) and Alabama (in 1901) adopted laws and policies against the federal mandate in denying convicted felons the right to vote (the majority of whom were persons of color). Most other states adopted similar laws that have continued through the Jim Crow era and have multiplied the numbers of disenfranchised citizens through the era of mass incarceration.
Findings from The Sentencing Project research (Christopher Uggens, et al., “Locked Out 2020”) feature the following:
• As of 2020, an estimated 5.17 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.
• One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting eligible population– is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.
• In three states – Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee more than 8 percent of the adult population, one of every thirteen people, is disenfranchised.
• Nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised, despite a 2018 ballot referendum that promised to restore their voting rights.
• One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 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.
• About 4 million former offenders who live in their communities are banned from voting. Of this total, 1.3 million are African Americans.
• More than 560,000 Latinx Americans or over 2 percent of the voting eligible population are disenfranchised.
• Approximately 1.2 million women are disenfranchised, comprising over one-fifth of the total disenfranchised population.
It is clear that disparities in the criminal justice system are linked to disparities in political representation.
Arguments For and Against Voting Bans
Roger Clegg, former deputy attorney general under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush stated in an Op-Ed column in the New York Times “if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do—directly or indirectly—when you vote.”
Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project argues that denying offenders voting rights assumes that people who have been convicted for example of stealing a car, cannot be trusted to participate in deciding which candidate has a more reasonable position on military defense policies, publicly-funded abortions, or health insurance policy.
Ronald Simpson-Bey, the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement for Just Leadership USA has stated that “Allowing incarcerated people the right to vote will strengthen their social and community ties. It encourages them to become assets to their communities instead of liabilities because it encourages legally responsible involvement and behavior in a civil society.”
Christopher Uggens, et al. (“Citizenship, Democracy, and the Civic Reintegration of Criminal Offenders,” 2006) concluded that reintegrating former offenders as responsible citizens including the right to vote might strengthen democracy while preserving, and perhaps enhancing, public safety.