The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 28, 2018

For Americans with criminal records, the fight to ensure full voting rights continues

February 28, 2018

In February, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire will explore racial disparities in housing and criminal justice and the structural barriers that continue to disadvantage the black population in the United States.

The power to elect your representatives is a fundamental American right, but one that was long denied to African Americans. Although the 15th Amendment prohibited federal and state governments from denying African Americans the vote, many obstacles have been put in their way, including poll taxes, literacy tests, and blatant racial discrimination.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, outlawed many of the established legal barriers, but its impact has been reduced by another barrier that disproportionately affects African Americans: voting restrictions placed on people convicted of a felony. 

Florida has been particularly aggressive in denying voting rights to people with felony convictions and is also home to one of the most substantial community-driven voting rights restoration efforts in recent history.

felony voting rights restrictions

The  map above  is derived from data collected by The Sentencing Project.

Fourteen percent of Florida’s adult population have a felony record, giving the state one of the largest concentrations of the approximately 6 million people in the United States with a felony record who cannot vote. Nearly 1 in 3 of those disenfranchised in Florida are black, significantly higher than the US average of 1 in 13.

Floridians with a felony conviction must wait five to seven years after completing their sentence to apply for restoration of their voting rights. They are also required to have paid all fines and avoided any arrests during the waiting period.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition collected the required 766,200 signatures to place the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative on the November 2018 ballot. The amendment, which will need the support of 60 percent of voters to pass, would restore voting rights to an estimated 1.7 million people. Given the racial disparities in Florida’s justice system, it would disproportionately return voting rights to African Americans.

Passage of the measure would replace a process that returns voting rights to only a small proportion of people. Since Governor Rick Scott entered office in 2011, only 2,800 out of almost 30,000 applications have been approved. As of July 2016, 10,000 cases for restoration of civil rights were still pending due to the Florida Office of Clemency’s struggles with backlog.

One troubling aspect of Florida’s clemency process is the ability of Florida’s Executive Clemency Board, consisting of the governor and three cabinet members, to deny restoration of civil rights without giving a reason, making the process highly subjective.

Furthermore, people who are denied must wait another two years before they can apply again. A recent ruling by a federal district court judge found Florida’s clemency review process unconstitutional, violating the 1st and 14th Amendments.

Restoration of voting rights can have individual- and community-level effects. At the individual level, incarceration compromises the civic participation of justice-involved people by physically separating them from their communities, but this civic diminishment persists through restrictions on voting rights. The right to vote can have positive reintegration impacts for people returning to their communities from jail or prison. 

At the community level, incarceration and justice involvement are physically concentrated, which means restrictions on civic participation in general, and voting rights specifically, are also geographically concentrated. Communities where justice involvement is clustered lose political power when voting rights are restricted. But they suffer further through the reallocation of voting power by counting people in prison where they are incarcerated rather than where they are from when defining legislative districts.

Skeptics often argue that abolishing disenfranchisement laws will not yield a great impact in electoral representation because people with felony convictions did not vote before and are unlikely to vote now. But findings from Returning Home, our longitudinal study of prisoner reentry, tell a different story. Eighty-two percent of the 389 respondents in our prerelease survey said they would vote after their release from prison if they could. Just 11 percent said they would not, and 7 percent did not know.

Citizens’ ability to participate in the democratic process, a staple of US government, is still denied to millions of people who desire to vote. Keeping people with felony convictions from voting tells them they are not fully vested members of the community and the nation. Grassroots civic engagement like the successful campaign to get the Florida voting rights restoration measure on the ballot show how some are countering this civil rights infringement.

We increasingly refer to people returning from incarceration as “returning citizens.” Restoring their voting rights is an important part of ensuring they are fully citizens.

Supporters for a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons upon their release from prison hold up signs supporting the bill on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, in front of the State House in Montgomery, Ala. Photo by Rob Carr/AP.


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