Felony disenfranchisement is voter suppression. Let’s fight it.

By Leigh Chapman, Senior Policy Advisor for Let America Vote

Of all the challenges and barriers to voting out there, one that doesn’t get enough attention is felony disenfranchisement and the often arduous process of rights restoration.

Across the country, states follow a patchwork of laws and constitutional provisions denying the right to vote to persons with prior felony convictions, and provide differing and in many cases extremely difficult processes for winning back the franchise.

Too many Americans — over 6 million — are excluded from our democratic process on the basis of criminal disenfranchisement laws. These laws are rooted in a racist legal tradition dating to the period after the Civil War, and continue to disproportionately affect communities of color. Indeed, one in every 13 voting-age African Americans has lost the right to vote four times the rate of all other Americans. In Tennessee, for example, one in every five African Americans is denied the right to vote by felony disenfranchisement laws.  

And these laws continue to disenfranchise people long after they’ve paid their debt to society. Of the over 6 million citizens unable to vote because of a past criminal conviction, as many as 4.7 million are currently out of prison.

These laws vary widely among states. On one end, Kentucky, Florida and Iowa impose lifetime disenfranchisement for all people with felony convictions unless an individual pardon is granted. On the other end, Vermont and Maine have no laws disenfranchising those with criminal convictions. The vast majority of states fall in between, either

  1. permanently disenfranchising at least some people with convictions depending on the crime;
  2. restoring voting rights upon completion of one’s sentence, including prison, parole, and probation;
  3. restoring voting rights automatically after release from prison and discharge from parole; or
  4. restoring voting rights automatically after release from prison.

These laws are racist. They undermine our democracy and make our government less accountable to the people it serves. It’s long past time we change them.

There are halting and scattered efforts to do so.

At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) has introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to the 4.7 million disenfranchised Americans who have been released from prison and are living in our communities.

At the state level, various efforts have arisen in recent years to restore voting rights. For example:

The big news in rights restoration in 2018, though, is happening in Florida. Sunshine State voters will decide this November whether to amend the state constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons after they complete their sentence, with the exception of murderers and sex offenders.

If voters approve the ballot referendum, known as Amendment 4, 1.4 million Floridians could regain the right to vote, restoring the promise of democracy and potentially reshaping the state’s political landscape.

The referendum follows a recent ruling from a federal judge finding that the state’s current voter restoration process violates First Amendment and equal protection rights of felons. Attorneys working to restore voting rights for former felons have accused Florida Gov. Rick Scott of dragging his feet on responding to the court’s findings, underscoring the importance of a voter-led change to the state constitution.

In Florida and across the country, the time is now to restore voting rights for Americans who have made mistakes but paid their debts to society. Text VOTE to 44939 to help us fight this form of voter suppression. Together, we can make our elections freer, fairer, and more accessible.