The Unheard Third: Felony Conviction

In most states, individuals who have been convicted of a felony are stripped of their voting rights for some period of time (varies state by state). 

The National Conference of State Legislatures group states into four categories when it comes to felon disenfranchisement:

  1. States where the right is never lost
  2. States where the right is lost while incarcerated but there is automatic right restoration after release (typically you have to re-register to vote)
  3. States where the right is lost until the completion of the sentence, including probation and/or parole, but there is automatic restoration (again, you typically have to re-register to vote)
  4. States where the right is lost until the completion of the sentence and potentially including a post-sentence waiting period, plus additional steps vary state by state before the individual’s voting rights are restored and they can re-register to vote

Three states (including DC) fall into the first category, 21 states fall into the second category, 16 states fall into the third category, and 11 states fall into the fourth. In all but DC, Maine, and Vermont, people convicted of a felony lose their right to vote for some period of time. In each of these states, once voting rights are restored (if they are restored), the former felon must go out and re-register to vote. 

Reintegration into society following a felony sentence is difficult enough in terms of finding a job, housing, healthcare, treatment, navigating paying off accrued fees — imagine the added task of navigating the system to get voting rights restored and then re-registering to vote. 

These bureaucratic barriers effectively amount to continued disenfranchisement and they affect a lot of people.

According to the Sentencing Project, 5.17 million people were disenfranchised due to felony convictions in 2020. Those 5.17 million people could not vote in 2020. 

While the 2020 election was not particularly close if we look at the popular vote (Biden won by a margin of 7.06 million votes), there were very small margins in states which were deciding factors in the electoral college. Georgia, for example, came down to 11,779 votes. Think about how 5.17 million people could have changed the outcome! 

2.27% of the total US voting eligible population was disenfranchised due to felony conviction in 2020. 

In Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, more than 8% of the adult population cannot vote due to felonies. More than 1.1 million people in Florida can’t vote due to current or past felony convictions. On top of it all, these numbers are not evenly distributed by race/ethnicity. 

In 2020, nationally 6.2% of the adult African American population couldn’t vote due to felony convictions. More than 20% of the adult African American population of Tennessee and Wyoming couldn’t vote for this reason. And in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Virginia, between 10 and 19.9% of adult African Americans are directly affected by felony disenfranchisement, compared to 1.7% of non-African American adults nationwide. 

Latino/a Americans are also disproportionately disenfranchised due to felony conviction — the Sentencing Project estimated in 2020 there were approximately 560,000 Latinx Americans who couldn’t vote due to felonies past or current. In Arizona, more than 7% of Latinx voters fall into this category. 

The majority of the people who are affected by felony disenfranchisement are not currently incarcerated — only 25% as of 2020.

75% of the people who cannot vote due to a felony conviction, approximately 3.88 million people, have already served their time in prison or jail and are living in their communities but are unable to vote for the people who represent those communities. 

A full 43%, approximately 2.23 million people, are completely past their sentence – they have completed their incarceration, parole, and probation – yet they still cannot vote. In many cases, unpaid legal financial obligations keep people from regaining their eligibility.

While these 2020 numbers seem large, they have actually improved some since 2014 when almost one million more people were disenfranchised due to felony conviction. Several states adopted legislation restoring felon voting rights or made conditions for restoration easier/faster to meet.  In 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to most people who have completed their felony sentences. 

Restoration doesn’t automatically mean former felons can vote again. 

The gains from 2018 were eroded when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill preventing those with a felony conviction from voting until they paid off all legal financial obligations (LFOs) in 2019. 

Public Wise participated in a funds matching program to raise money for the League of Women Voters of Florida in 2020 for a program they ran to match former felons to pro bono legal counsel to help with any legal challenges to their renewed right to vote. 

Without those types of programs, many former felons remain either unaware of their restored rights or unable to efficiently navigate the criminal justice bureaucracy to take advantage of the changes made in Amendment 4. 

Wyoming, Virginia, Iowa, and Kentucky all also made changes either through legislation or executive order to improve voting rights restoration. 

A new analysis by the Marshall Project showed there are huge barriers to registration for former felons and less than a quarter actually ended up reclaiming their voting rights and participating in the 2020 election in the four states they analyzed. 

One of the reasons why we think voting rights restoration is so important for those who have been convicted of a felony is because regaining the full rights of citizenship post sentence is an important part of the process of successfully reintegrating people into society. 

Research has shown re-enfranchisement is specifically associated with reduced recidivism

Disparities in the criminal justice system mean Black men are most likely to be disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, making continuing felon disenfranchisement even after an individual has served time and returned to the community an issue contributing to racial disparities in democratic representation. 

Anyone who is for functioning civil society, lower crime rates, and equal representation should be for felon re-enfranchisement.