Yesterday, a friend of mine called me. She said that she had been talking to a woman whose partner had a felony record who had served his time for the crime. Among the several issues they discussed was his frustration that he was no longer able to vote. Like many people, my friend and the couple she was talking to me about all believe that once someone has been found guilty of a felony, they face a lifetime ban on their constitutional right to vote.
Since primary season is coming up in many places around the country and since most states have voter registration deadlines before their primary election day, I thought I’d provide some background information on this issue.
What is the myth?
Simply stated, the myth is that ex-cons cannot vote – once convicted and forever afterwards. There are at least two errors in this myth:
- Except for a narrow category of crimes in Mississippi, disenfranchisement does not occur in any state if you are found guilty of a misdemeanor crime. Even if you spend time in jail for that misdemeanor.
- Voter disenfranchisement for people with a felony conviction differs by state. Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all current and former felons from voting, but most don’t.
So it all depends on where you live. Here’s what I found out about state laws on this issue from the Brennan Center for Justice
Permanent Disenfranchisement for All Felons
Only four states – Iowa, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia – permanently disenfranchise current and former felons from voting. The only way for a person to have their voting rights reinstated is through an “individual rights restoration” process set up by each state.
Permanent Disenfranchisement for Some but Not All Felons
Seven states permanently disenfranchise some, but not all current and former felons from voting.
In Arizona, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied.
In the other six states in this category, you need to check your state law to determine which felony convictions permanently deny you the right to vote. Here’s a quick summary of these laws.
- In Alabama, you can be permanently barred from voting if your crime is listed in their disenfranchisement list. If the conviction is a “moral turpitude” type of conviction, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence and payment of fines and fees.
- In Delaware, voting after incarceration can be reinstated five years post-incarceration unless the crime you committed is one among a list of crimes that permanently disenfranchises your right to vote.
- In Mississippi, you permanently lose your right to vote if you are convicted of any of ten categories of crime, whether that crime is a felony or misdemeanor. If your crime isn’t on this list, you can vote even while incarcerated. Note, this is the only state that has a law that permanently bans voting for someone who has created a misdemeanor.
- In Nevada, if someone is convicted of two or more felonies, the right to vote is permanently denied. People convicted of violent crimes at any time are permanently barred from voting. Nevada will restore those rights if a pardon is granted or if the court where the conviction originally occurred restores those rights.
- In Tennessee, if your crime is on the list of crimes that permanently bar you from voting, then you can only have these rights reinstated if you are pardoned. For all other crimes, you can have your voting rights restored upon completion of your sentence, payment of fines and fees, and show that you are up to date on all child support payments.
- In Wyoming, you can have your voting rights restored five years post-incarceration for first-time non-violent crimes. All others are permanently disenfranchised unless pardoned by the Governor.
Voting Rights Restored Upon Completion of Incarceration, Probation, and Parole
Nineteen states – Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – restore your rights to vote upon completion of your sentence, which includes incarceration, probation, and parole.
In Nebraska, one additionally has to wait two years after completing the sentence before being allowed to vote.
In Washington state, you can lose your right to vote again if you haven’t paid your financial obligations after completing your sentence.
Voting Rights Restored After Incarceration and/or Probation
Five states – California, Colorado, Connecticut, New York, and South Dakota – allow you to vote once you have completed your sentence and/or probation.
In New York, those on probation can have their voting rights restored if they receive either a “Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.”
Voting Rights Immediately Restored After Incarceration
Fifteen states – the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah – immediately restore voting rights upon one’s release from jail or prison. There are no voting restrictions for people on parole or serving probation time.
No Restrictions on Voting for People with a Criminal Record
And just two states – Maine and Vermont – allow anyone otherwise eligible to vote regardless of criminal conviction to vote. Even while incarcerated, on probation, or parole.
Who is most likely to be impacted by this disenfranchisement?
According to the ACLU, people and communities of color are most often disparately impacted by felony disenfranchisement laws. There are over 5.3 million people in the United States that are barred from voting due to a criminal conviction. The majority of these crimes are non-violent.
Of the 5.3 million disenfranchised, 1.4 million or 26 percent of people with a criminal conviction are African-American citizens. Considering that black persons make up just 13 percent of the national population, one can immediately see that if you are Black, you are twice as likely to have your voting rights denied. This means that one in 13 African-Americans across the country are being denied their right to vote.
The myth of an ex-con never being allowed to vote compounds this issue. As previously stated, many believe that once convicted, they can never vote again.
With a widespread belief in this myth as well as a lack of public education to refute it, more and more ex-cons are at risk of not regaining their right to vote. Since actual disenfranchisement disparately impacts people of color, this assumption exacerbates this form of discrimination.
In my opinion, little is done by the government, courts, and communities to educate people and communities about their voting rights when one has been sentenced for a crime. Exceptions to this come from only a few, non-profit advocacy sources, including the ACLU, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Prison Policy Initiative, and the Sentencing Project. There are others, but I believe that these four contain the best resources.
What do you need to do to get registered?
If your state is one of the states that do not permanently disenfranchise people who have completed their sentence (or if you live in Maine or Vermont which has no felony restrictions on voting), you should check out what your state law is regarding registering to vote. The federal government has a website that has basic information on how to register and what the registration deadlines are by state. It also has links to every state’s election office website where you can get details about state-specific requirements for voter eligibility.
If you know or believe that you have the right to vote in your state despite having a criminal history and receive a denial to vote when you attempt to register, you should check with an organization that provides legal services to people who have been incarcerated. You can find a listing of these organizations by state here. If your state isn’t listed, then the Prison Policy Initiative suggests that you contact one of the national groups that provide voter disenfranchisement assistance.
Once you get registered, GO VOTE! It’s your right.