State laws restrict about 6 million Americans from voting. As of 2010, 5.85 million citizens experienced what this country’s colonial predecessors would have called “civil death”: the loss of voting rights following a felony conviction.
Early Americans were sentenced with civil death only following crimes that were related to voting or that were especially heinous. But 21st-century citizens can lose the franchise for committing any one of a much longer list of felonies. They vary in severity, are different in each state, and include resisting arrest, graffiti causing property damage over $1,000, kidnapping, and murder.
Three quarters of those affected by disenfranchisement laws are not in prison or jail—they are community members who have completed their sentence or are on probation or parole.
Disenfranchisement of individuals with felony charges disproportionately affects people by race and state. Across the United States, 1 in 13 black American adults cannot vote. Black Americans comprise nearly 38 percent of those who do not have the right to vote, but 13 percent of the entire US population.
Disenfranchisement laws are determined at the state level, so the rights of those who have been convicted of felonies to vote depend on where they were sentenced or live.
Maine and Vermont stand alone in placing no voting restrictions on individuals based on felony convictions. In 13 states, voting is prohibited by default even after individuals have reentered the community and are no longer on probation or parole. While some of these states have limited waiting periods after which voting rights are reinstated automatically, in others individuals must undergo an application process to request their right to vote be restored.
States that do not allow those on probation to vote are likely to have large numbers of disenfranchised individuals, because more Americans are on probation than are on parole, in prison, and in jail combined.
Why does felony disenfranchisement matter? It can affect the outcomes of elections and the individuals themselves.
Research suggests that the population that lacks the right to vote may have had the ability to change a number of past elections, including the Bush-Gore presidential election in 2000.
Voting also has a positive impact on people. Civic participation, including voting, is a valuable component of successful reintegration for those returning to communities. Some evidence suggests that individuals with criminal records who vote after their first offense are less likely to commit additional crimes or be incarcerated than those with records who do not vote.
People reentering communities want to vote—in fact, 84 percent of respondents to a survey conducted in Ohio indicated they would vote if allowed. And Americans support giving individuals with felony convictions the right to vote.
The disproportionate impact of disenfranchisement across race, state, and sentence creates inequalities, and is heightened by the fact that voting can support reintegration and is associated with lower rates of reoffending and incarceration. Perhaps policymakers should examine the evidence about the impact disenfranchisement has on the individuals it affects.
Currently, right to vote based on past mistakes hinges largely on where one lives in this country. Is that something our society will continue to accept?
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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.