Restore Voting Rights of Ex-Felons

If you’ve read Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness — and you really should, it’s an incredibly important book — you know how our criminal justice system has, intentionally or not, reestablished the reality of the Jim Crow south. Our obsessive focus on drugs and the obsessive focus within that problem on black drug sellers and users (who use and sell drugs at the same rate as whites) has resulted in millions of black men in particular in prison. And that often results in their disenfranchisement as well.

Compare this to the United States where most states prohibit felons from voting. The two states that allow it are Maine and Vermont. These two states also happen to be the whitest states in the nation. Another 13 states and the District of Columbia allow felons on parole to vote. Most of these 13 states have incredibly small black populations such as Montana, New Hampshire, and Utah. An additional four states allow those on probation to vote. Nineteen states allow voting once release is final. And the real kicker is that 12 states stop felons from voting permanently if they don’t meet certain requirements.

The people overwhelmingly affected by these laws are minorities. Only 2.5%, 5.8 million people, in the voting age population were made ineligible to vote by felon voting laws in 2010, according to the Sentencing Project (pdf). That percentage tripled to 7.7% among African-Americans. Another way of putting this is that 38%, 2.2 million, of all those stopped from voting by felon restrictions are black. About a million black ex-felons (i.e. those who have “paid their debt to society”) are disenfranchised…

I don’t need to tell you that African-American voting rights and the southern United States don’t exactly have a glorious history. None of the 21 states where incarcerated felons, those on parole, or on probation can vote are in the south. In Alabama, 15% of voting-age blacks are kept from voting by felon laws, and 14% of voting-age blacks are stopped in Mississippi. This percentage climbs to 19% in Tennessee.

In terms of pure numbers, 137,478 of African-Americans in Alabama, 107,758 in Mississippi, and 145,943 in Tennessee are kept from voting. Of the voters made ineligible by felon voting laws in Tennessee, over 40% are black. That percentage is above 50% in Alabama and Mississippi. The vast majority of these are people who have not only been released prison, but are off probation and parole as well.

The ability to reapply for voting rights can be as simple as submitting an application to the board of elections, but some states make it much more tedious. In Alabama, you can never regain your enfranchisement for certain offenses. In Mississippi, one might lose the right to vote for felony for writing a bad check. Said person would then have to get the state legislature to pass a specific bill allowing them to vote.

It doesn’t matter which party those people are more or less likely to vote for. As a simple matter of justice and equality, they should have the right to vote — especially after they have paid their debt to society. Legislators have paid far too much attention to public fears of criminals, which has prompted them to pass laws with ever-harsher penalties. That is what has caused us to imprison a higher percentage of our population than any other nation in the world. Our system of mass incarceration is a national disgrace; that we even take away the right to vote from those caught up in the system makes it even worse.

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  • Virginia did something good, in that it allows non-violent felons the right to vote.

  • Alverant

    KevinKat, what qualifies as a non-violent felon? Is having small amounts of drugs considered violent or not? I could be wrong but I have the feeling “non-violent” is reserved for “white conservative white collar” criminals instead of those criminals who are not-white.

  • AJS

    And I thought it was bad enough that in the UK, you aren’t allowed to vote while you are in prison.

    But barring people who have repaid their debt to society from voting? Sorry, that’s not how democracy is done.

  • left0ver1under

    AJS (#3) –

    But barring people who have repaid their debt to society from voting? Sorry, that’s not how democracy is done.

    Ah, but you’re assuming that democracy is the desired goal. To the oligarchs, it isn’t. It’s about allowing only the “approved” people to vote.

    Voter elimination is the new form of Gerrymandering, and it comes in many forms. Barring “felons” (and creating more laws to make more citizens into felons) is just one way. There’s also voter list purges, seen in recent elections. And then there are the rule changes, new laws (e.g. pushes for voter ID weeks before elections happen) enacted as late as possible. Such laws affect the poor, the most isolated and the least educated the most, the people who will be least able to adapt to new rules and are most likely to vote for democrats.

  • Thumper; Atheist mate

    There are states where ex-felons can’t vote? As in, they’ve gone to prison, done their time, are released, have done their parole, and they are still not allowed to vote?

    That’s despicable.

  • Michael Heath

    AJS writes:

    And I thought it was bad enough that in the UK, you aren’t allowed to vote while you are in prison.

    But barring people who have repaid their debt to society from voting? Sorry, that’s not how democracy is done.

    Actually this is a perfect example of how democracy is done. It’s also illustrative as to why James Madison architected and co-championed a liberal democracy with other radically liberal framers. I.e., a type of democracy that protects individual rights from the often tyrannical tendencies of majorities.

  • @alverant:

    It’s at least a step in the right direction. I think all felons should be allowed to vote (once rehabilitated of course) but if it’s a little step forward, then I’m alright with it.

  • Alverant


    I wouldn’t call it a step in the right direction if it was designed to show preference to felons that tend to favor one political party over another. Last time I checked, white collar criminals tend to vote conservative.

  • Pteryxx

    Some states only allow voting rights to be restored after parole or probation (which can add years or decades of disenfranchisement, and more via parole violations or probation taken as plea bargains rather than risk going to trial). Some have waiting periods, such as Florida (five or seven years) or Wyoming (five and ten years plus direct application to the Governor). And some won’t restore voting until incarceration AND parole AND probation AND financial obligations are ended, such as child support, fines, or legal fees. Combined with the rising trend in US debtor’s prisons these requirements can effectively result in permanent disenfranchisement.

  • Draken

    what qualifies as a non-violent felon?

    For example, shouting “The Republican Party if full of shit!” is definitely a violent felony that warrants lifelong deprivation of voting rights.

  • Pteryxx

    Alverant at #2: here’s the current status of voting rights restoration in Virginia.

    Examples of Crimes Considered “Non-Violent” for Purposes of Automatic Restoration of Rights

    **Please note this list is a guideline only. If you have specific questions about whether your felony conviction would be considered non-violent please contact the Restoration of Rights Division at 1-855-575-9177**

    Bank Fraud

    Breaking & Entering under VA Code 18.2-92: Sentencing Commission Code BUR2219-F6 (Unless committed with a deadly weapon)

    Credit Card Theft/Credit Card Fraud/Credit Card Forgery

    Driving Under the Influence or Driving While Intoxicated, 3rd or Subsequent Offense

    Drug Possession (must not be Drug Possession with the Intent to Distribute)


    False Statement on Firearm Transaction Record

    Felonious Shoplifting/Concealment/Price Altering

    Felony Eluding Police


    Grand Larceny

    Habitual Offender

    Identity Theft

    Issuing Bad Checks/Worthless Checks

    Mail Theft/Mail Fraud

    Obtain Money by False Pretenses


    Petit Larceny, 3rd or Subsequent Offense

    Possession of burglary tools

    Prescription Fraud/Obtain Drugs by Fraud

    Statutory Burglary under VA Code 18.2-91; Sentencing Commission Code BUR2213-F9 or BUR2216-F9 (Unless committed with a deadly weapon)

    Unlawful Possession of a Concealed Weapon


    Welfare Fraud

    Since “intent to distribute” counts as “violent” for disenfranchisement purposes, and that’s a charge often chosen at the will of the prosecutor, I’d guess that’s the primary break point for racial disparity in drug charges. Again, see The New Jim Crow for discussion of more severe drug charges applied to PoC.

  • Pteryxx

    For example, shouting “The Republican Party if full of shit!” is definitely a violent felony that warrants lifelong deprivation of voting rights.

    Heh… remember that, when reading about how terrorism laws get used against protesters and journalists, and how copyright and DMCA get used against computer researchers and supposed media pirates.

    If an album or film were distributed with DRM allowing it to be played only on alternate Tuesdays, or only in certain geographic regions, then these limits enjoyed the force of law–to go around them might not involve a a violation of copyright per se, but it would involve circumventing the access control, an activity that the DMCA made a felony.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The only criminals in US voting booths should be the names on the ballot!

  • Pen

    This is a really important issue. I actually like the Australian system where voting is compulsory. That would solve a whole lot of issues in one fell swoop. No excuses now, it’s technologically practical.

  • Red-Green in Blue

    A few things that occur to me:

    1. So each State gets to decide whether to prevent its resident (ex-)felons to vote in federal elections? Either the States want to be affiliated to the association known as the USA or they don’t. If they do, then surely they should all adhere to the same rules when it comes to how that association is run?

    2. As Alverant (#2) implied, it seems that a particular set of non-violent felonies are seen as “not-really-felonies”. I fail to see how (for example) embezzling hundreds of people’s life savings deserves to have their voting rights restored more than someone who assaulted and seriously injured one person. Either “felonies” is a useful category or it isn’t, but if not, state governments should be honest about it and improve the classification of offences by severity.

    3. The disenfranchisement statistics for black voting-age adults in Tennessee made my jaw drop literally. I stopped reading the article at that point for a couple of minutes, just to try and imagine what it really means to live in a place where one-fifth of a historically-disadvantaged ethnic group is banned from voting. If rates of disenfranchisement of particular groups get much higher, those groups might decide that it is no longer possible to work within the system, exit US electoral politics and the official economy and start to build their own parallel systems – rather like the ethnic Albanians of Kosovë did in the former Yugoslavia. And that tends to end in tears, as most centralised states don’t appreciate being rejected like that…

  • Trickster Goddess

    In Canada, while ex-prisoners could always vote, people currently serving sentences could not. Then about 10 years ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it was unconstitutional to deprive them of the right to vote, since it had nothing to do with their crime and it served no valid public purpose.

    Since then, at every election there are now voting booths in every jail and penitentiary. Prisoners casts their votes for the candidates in the riding of their last residency before incarceration.

    BTW, in all of Canada there is only one single citizen who does not have the right to vote. That is the head of Elections Canada, which is the arms-length, non-partisan department charged with conducting the federal elections.

  • martinc

    I have to admit, I have never understood why being a criminal loses you the right to vote in the USA. Is this supposed to improve the voter pool? It seems bizarre that you can lose your voting rights for assault, but not for say, electoral fraud.

    Here in Australia, voting is compulsory (well, turning up to vote is: if you want to spoil your ballot after making the effort to get to a polling booth, well, fill your boots). This applies to all ex-prisoners, and all currently serving prisoners who have a sentence of three years or less. We have “prison mobile voting teams” that go to each prison on polling day. Those prisoners serving a 3+ year sentence are not eligible to vote, but once released are again eligible to vote.

  • Michael Heath

    martinc writes:

    I have never understood why being a criminal loses you the right to vote in the USA. Is this supposed to improve the voter pool?

    I’ve only heard one arguable position. That is the prisoners could vote as a bloc in a way that reverses the supposed justice dealt out that put them in prison.

    That argument only resonates if prisoners across a multitude of prisons are able to organize and vote en masse, and only if their numbers could make a difference in the outcome. I think that’s doubtful. It is a viable argument at the local level, especially in local jurisdictions where prison populations are significant relative to the total population of adults; but that alone is not justification for not allowing them to vote. One would also have to consider the benefits of having a voting results that are more representative of the population, which I think are many.

  • Pteryxx

    I have never understood why being a criminal loses you the right to vote in the USA. Is this supposed to improve the voter pool?

    Apparently the original wave of felon disenfranchisement laws were part of Jim Crow, along with poll taxes and literacy tests, in direct response to the Fifteenth Amendment.

    The modern history of felon disenfranchisement in Virginia, however, begins in 1870, when state lawmakers followed the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or color, by amending the Virginia Constitution to deny voting rights to any person convicted of a felony.

    This wasn’t coincidence or a newfound concern for the integrity of the voting process. Virginia, like most southern states, was arresting and convicting former slaves at an alarming rate. Lawmakers knew that a sweeping provision denying voting rights for all felons would disproportionately impact African-Americans.

    If anyone ever wondered exactly what post-Civil War Virginia lawmakers thought about minority voting rights, they need look no further than the minutes of the 1901 Constitutional Convention.

    The words of imminent Virginians who gathered for this historic undertaking may grate on twenty-first century sensibilities, but they are instructive. At the convention, when one participant balked at a proposal intended to discriminate against African-Americans, delegate Carter Glass declared, “Discrimination! Why that is precisely what we propose, that exactly is what this convention was elected for.”

    The convention was certainly a success in that regard, adding mandates for poll taxes and literacy tests, while leaving in place felon disenfranchisement and the ban on elected school boards, the latter allowing white-dominated office holders to control appointments. Convention delegates also approved “grandfather clauses” that exempted civil war veterans and their offspring — who were overwhelmingly white, of course — from having to pass literacy tests or pay poll taxes.

    As these Jim Crow provisions took shape at the convention, Glass proudly announced, “This plan will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county…will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”