In the 2020 general election, Americans exercised their right to vote in record numbers, and close races across the country showed that every vote mattered. No state highlighted this better than Georgia, where tight races up and down the ballot forced a recount and runoff election.
Despite record turnout, about 5.2 million people with felony convictions (2.3 percent of the US voting population) were barred from voting. And 1 in 16 African Americans ages 18 and older is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction—a rate nearly four times greater than that of non-African Americans.
As of 2018 (PDF), 266,000 Georgians involved in the justice system were disenfranchised—a number large enough to influence the outcome of the election. Georgia's runoff races in January will determine the composition and majority leadership of the Senate.
States are increasingly addressing the issue of felony disenfranchisement and restoring rights to justice-involved people. Last week, California joined the ranks of 17 other states that restore people’s voting rights upon release from prison. As stakeholders in California implement this new rights restoration policy, they can learn from other states’ successes and challenges.
California’s Prop 17 restores voting rights to people on parole and addresses racial injustice
Nearly 60 percent of California voters approved Proposition 17, which amended the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to people on state parole upon leaving prison. Before Prop 17, California’s constitution prohibited people with felony convictions from voting while in prison or on parole, which disenfranchised nearly 50,000 people on parole. By allowing people on parole to become registered voters, Prop 17 also allows them to run for office under current state law, as long as they have not been convicted of perjury or bribery.
Proponents of Prop 17 underscored that 17 other states automatically restore people's voting rights upon release from prison. They also emphasized the racial injustice of felony disenfranchisement—Black and Latinx Californians lose their right to vote at higher rates because they are more likely than white people to be arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated. These racial and ethnic disparities are rooted in overpolicing, disproportionate sentence lengths, and generational disadvantages that increase exposure to the legal system. Black and Latinx people have also faced other racist barriers to voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. Opponents of Prop 17 argued that people should only be able to vote after they complete their sentence, including parole.
Restoring voting rights to justice-involved people (or never taking them away in the first place) allows justice-involved people to continue to vote—a right guaranteed by the First Amendment—and has the power to affect elections and policies at national, state, and local levels.
To effectively implement Prop 17, California can learn from other states
The rights restoration process differs across states. In 19 states, people with felony convictions lose their right to vote until they complete their sentence, including parole or probation. In 11 states, people face a waiting period and/or additional requirements, like paying fines or fees. In 18 states, people lose their right to vote only while imprisoned. In just two states and the District of Columbia, people with felony convictions never lose their right to vote.
According to the Yes on Prop 17 campaign, Prop 17 automatically restores voting rights to the nearly 50,000 Californians who have completed their prison sentence and are living in and contributing to their communities while on state parole. Though automatic rights restoration may seem straightforward, rights restoration policies can be challenging to put into practice.
Before Prop 17, people who completed parole had to reregister to vote by requesting a voter registration card from the California secretary of state or their county elections office or by applying to register online. Because Prop 17 did not specify new procedures for restoring voting rights to people on parole, they will likely need to reregister to vote, but upon completion of prison rather than parole. Californians can use an online tool to determine their eligibility to restore their voting rights, but people on parole may not be aware of the process or tools available to them.
These three key factors can promote higher rates of voting rights restoration:
- clearly communicating the process to eligible voters
- using automatic (instead of application-based) restoration processes
- limiting additional conditions or requirements for restoration
As stakeholders in California implement Prop 17, they can look to lessons learned from other states that have passed and implemented rights restoration policies. For example, Kentucky makes restoring voting rights after sentence completion straightforward for eligible voters, while Florida imposes additional barriers.
In Kentucky, people ending their sentence can check a database built by the governor's office to determine if their rights have been restored. They also provide a phone number for people without access to a computer. If the offense does not fit the criteria for automatic restoration, the website offers documents and a link for people to apply for civil rights restoration. Kentucky’s automatic restoration without additional requirements is expected to restore voting rights to more than 140,000 people.
Despite passing a 2018 ballot referendum promising to restore voting rights, Florida leads the nation in felony disenfranchisement because it requires payment of fines and fees as a condition for restoration. Nearly 900,000 Floridians who have completed their felony sentence still have not had their right to vote restored because they have not finished paying fines and fees imposed by the state—in some cases because the state struggles to track fines and fees that are still owed and to coordinate eligibility data. The election supervisors make the final call to determine eligibility, and their inconsistent decisionmaking has caused confusion for people eligible for voting rights restoration.
To ensure effective implementation of voting rights restoration policies, making the restoration process as clear, coordinated, and automated as possible is critical. Automatically restoring rights, clearly communicating and providing accessible ways to verify eligibility and restoration statuses, and limiting additional conditions are a few ways to enable rights restoration.
Restoring voting rights is critical
Though several states voted on candidates and ballot measures with significant implications for criminal justice policy, California's Prop 17 is an important step toward restoring voting rights and reducing barriers to political participation for justice-involved people. The 2020 election affirmed that every vote counts and every voice matters. Enacting and effectively implementing voting rights restoration policies is a critical way to protect the rights, voice, and dignity of people involved in the justice system. To quote Betty McKay, a Californian whose right to vote was restored, “The power of the vote was ripped away from tens of thousands of my brothers and sisters, and thanks to millions of California voters that power has been rightfully returned.”