By David M. Reutter
The United States is billed as the world’s largest and greatest democracy. However, it is also “one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crimes,” according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promotes sentencing reforms, advocates for alternatives to incarceration and criticizes racial disparities in our criminal justice system.
The Sentencing Project reports that 5.85 million Americans are unable to vote due to state felon disenfranchisement laws.
Only Maine and Vermont have no disenfranchisement statutes, allowing even prisoners to vote while incarcerated. Prisoners cannot vote in the other 48 states, while 31 states deny voting rights to probationers and 35 disenfranchise parolees. Jail detainees who have not been convicted of a felony can still vote in most cases.
Twelve states have the most extreme sanctions and deny voting rights to some or all ex-felons who have successfully completed their prison, parole or probation terms. Those states include Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.
While most states have a process for former felons to regain their right to vote, it can be onerous and in some cases expensive. In Tennessee, for example, ex-felons must pay all restitution and court costs owed plus be current on any child support payments before they are allowed to vote.
Public opinion research has shown that a majority of Americans favor probationers and parolees, as well as those who have completed their sentences, regaining their voting rights. Yet The Sentencing Project has reported a dramatic increase in the rate of disenfranchisement since 1980.
“At that time, far more of the nation had disenfranchisement rates below .5% and no state disenfranchised more than 5% of its adult citizens…. disenfranchisement rates in 2010 varied from less than .5% in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Utah (and zero in Maine and Vermont) to more than 7% in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia.”
Although it has the third largest prison system in the nation, Florida tops the list for disenfranchisement. With over 1.5 million people prohibited from voting, Florida disenfranchises 10.42% of its population. By contrast, Texas and California, which have the largest state prison systems, only disenfranchise 2.91% and 1% of their citizens, respectively.
The rate of disenfranchisement varies “tremendously” across racial and ethnic groups, according to The Sentencing Project. This is problematic for Hispanics but has been devastating for African-Americans. In 1980, Arizona and Iowa disenfranchised 10% of their African American populations and several southern states exceeded 5%. By 2014, Florida, Kentucky and Virginia disenfranchised 20% or more of black adults. Overall, around 7.6% of black adults are disenfranchised nationwide – or one in every 13.
This is not surprising, as many states’ disenfranchisement laws were enacted in the post-Reconstruction period following the Civil War, as a way to deny voting rights to freed slaves. In some cases, such laws were specifically designed to disenfranchise blacks who were thought to be more likely to commit certain crimes. “While it is debatable whether felony disenfranchisement laws today are intended to reduce the political clout of communities of color, this is their undeniable effect,” The Sentencing Project noted.
The number of people who are disenfranchised has steadily grown in recent years. This contrasts with a decline between 1960 and 1976 as states expanded voting rights during the civil rights era. Many states have scaled back their disenfranchisement laws since the 1970s.
For example, Maryland and Washington eliminated disenfranchisement after prisoners had completed their sentences or terms of community supervision. Rhode Island now only restricts the voting rights of prisoners as opposed to all felons including those on probation and parole. Nebraska instituted automatic restoration of voting rights after a two-year waiting period following completion of a prison sentence.
However, as the prison population in the U.S. grew exponentially in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a corresponding increase in the number of people who lost their voting rights.
The scope, eligibility and reporting practices of states’ methods for restoring the voting rights of disenfranchised felons vary greatly. The Sentencing Project made a “rough estimate” of states’ re-enfranchisement rates, finding felons and former felons had their rights restored “from less than 1% of all ex-felons in all states to over 16% in Delaware.”
Of the people who are disenfranchised, 25% are in prison or jail. “The remaining 75% are living in their communities, having fully completed their sentences or remaining supervised while on probation or parole.” This means that “over 4 million of the adults who live, work, and pay taxes in their communities are banned from voting.”
That is enough votes to change the outcome of state, local and national elections. The Sentencing Project noted that “one study found that disenfranchisement policies likely affected the results of seven U.S. Senate races from 1970 to 1998 as well as the hotly contested 2000 Bush-Gore presidential election.”
“Denying the right to vote to an entire class of citizens is deeply problematic to a democratic society and counterproductive to effective reentry,” The Sentencing Project concluded.
Other democracies do not impose unilateral restrictions on the voting rights of citizens who commit crimes. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights held “that a blanket ban on voting from prison violates the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to free and fair elections.” Similarly, courts in South Africa, Israel and Canada have ruled against restrictions on voting rights solely due to criminal convictions.
Not so in the United States, the land of the not-so-free with liberty, justice and voting rights for some but not all.
Sources: “State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010,” The Sentencing Project (July 2012); “Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer,” The Sentencing Project (updated April 2014)
(Published by Prison Legal News; used by permission)