In America, There Are 5.8 Million Adults Who Are Not Allowed to Vote

Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

voting booths

Not everyone gets to see the inside of a voting booth. Photo by N. Shepard.

If you’re an American citizen, you have the right to vote. Unless you’re an American citizen who’s been convicted of a felony. Then, in almost every state, your right to vote is taken away—sometimes for the rest of your life.

Disenfranchisement laws aimed at people convicted of felonies currently prevent nearly 5.8 million people from voting.  And because people of color are more likely to be arrested nationwide, these anti-voting laws take away a basic right disproportionately from Black and Latino Americans. In Maryland, approximately half of the 40,000 people denied the right to vote are African-American.

These alarming numbers prompted advocates to push Maryland’s legislature to change this reality. They were successful–last week, legislators approved a bill to restore voting rights to people who have been convicted and incarcerated. The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk for his approval. This is a landmark moment for a voting rights issue that, even during the hoopla around the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, rarely makes headlines.

Almost every state in the country has laws denying people with felony convictions the right to vote in prison, but laws vary wildly about what happens once they’re released. Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia do not allow people convicted of felonies to vote for the rest of their lives. In the 2000 presidential race, felony disenfranchisement laws made a crucial difference between votes for George W. Bush and Al Gore. The infamous recount hinged on a few hundreds votes in a state where 750,000 people had been stripped of the right to vote because of a previous conviction. “Had fewer than two percent of the disenfranchised in Florida voted, Gore would have probably been elected president,” noted Sasha Abramsky. To this day in Florida, the ban on voting keeps nearly ten percent of the state’s population from the polls.

prisons are a feminist issue

In Iowa, Governor Terry Branstad changed a policy which gave people back voting rights once they were no longer under state supervisions to one that strips people convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life—unless the governor personally restores their voting rights. Since the new policy took effect, more than 8,000 people have finished their prison sentences or community supervision but less than a dozen have successfully had their rights restored. In 2012, 65-year-old Richard Straight, an Iowa resident with a felony conviction, said that, although he’d like to vote in the presidential election, he does not think it’s worth the fight. “I’ve only got a few years left of living. I might as well kick back and relax and live my life instead of fighting the system like that,” he said.

Banning voting rights for people who’ve spent time in prison means, of course, that millions of people whose lives have been affected by the justice system have no say in whether the next elected official would introduce more Tough on Crime policies or is open to sentencing reform and less punitive policies. It also means that elected officials need not take into account the needs and demands of the constituents who are formerly incarcerated. Given the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, it’s no surprise that voter disenfranchisement does so as well: The Sentencing Project estimates that approximately one-third of the 5.8 million people no longer able to vote are African-American.

In a speech last year, Attorney General Eric Holder called on states to nix their disenfranchisement laws, saying the system was a vestige of racist policies in the post-Civil War South. “Those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives,” Holder said.

But in thirteen states and the District of Columbia, a previous conviction is not necessarily a barrier to the ballot. In New York state, for example, once a person has finished parole, they’re is able to vote. If the person was convicted and sentenced to probation, she need not wait until her sentence is complete to cast her ballot. This means that formerly incarcerated people can not only get involved in advocating for systemic change in the courts and prisons, but also have the potential to vote legislators in or out of office. This is a power that police and correctional officers’ unions have utilized both in New York and other places. But for those in states with more onerous disenfranchisement laws, their demands can be more easily ignored by those in political power.

If Governor Hogan signs the bill into law, 40,000 formerly incarcerated voters will be able to go to the Maryland polls this election day. That’s a change worth cheering for. 

Related Reading: A Woman Was Sentenced to 41 Years in Prison for a Miscarriage.

Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women


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6 Comments Have Been Posted

The Iowa governor has the

The Iowa governor has the power to restore voting rights? Does that sound a little corrupt? I'm wondering if there are questions about voting history/party alignments on the applications for residents looking to restore their right to vote, and if that affects whether or not the governor will grant it...

Incomplete Facts

This is not the fact in many many states. If you are on parole, you cannot vote until you are off parole. Then, after a felon is done with parole and has re-registered to vote, they may then vote. Richard Straight is just lazy minded.

What a rude thing to say.

What a rude thing to say. According to this article, Mr. Straight lives in Iowa, a state that disenfranchises felons for life. So he would not have get off parole and register to vote, he would have to try to get the law changed. It doesn't strike me as at all "lazy minded" that he does not want to do that when he feels he is nearing the end of his life. It strikes me as sad, and I hope other readers are more charitable in their assessment than you are, and will add their voices to the call to give back the vote to people convicted of a felony.

If someone commits a crime

If someone commits a crime and they are CONVICTED, this means they have been found guilty of a crime - merely being accused of a crime does not normally come with such penalties as the article talks about, if at all (I don't know of any, but there might be some in areas of the USA I'm unfamiliar with.)

Being convicted of a crime in most cases means there was an intent to do an act deemed illegal.

Illegal acts include such things as murder, rape, assault, theft, tax evasion, resisting arrest, gross negligence resulting in loss of life or health, extortion, bribery, perjury, conspiracy, anti-competitive business, war crimes, public indecency, illegal immigration, human trafficking, drug trafficking, illegal use or possession of a firearm, and many other things done with the intent to exploit or damage others.

Voting is intended to allow citizens to elect officials that they think will lead the country in ways they agree with.

If someone has been accused of a crime - AKA they caused undue harm for others - and convicted for it in a court of law by their peers, it's reasonable to deny such people the ability to cast their vote on how the country should be lead. They have already proved that they disregard others, so allowing them to influence the government is undeniably a bad idea.

It is a fact of life that if someone commits a crime, they lose many of their rights. Anyone who still chooses to do so knows the consequences for getting caught & convicted.

I suppose loss of liberty

I suppose loss of liberty would seem reasonable coming from your perspective: that all crime causes harm, that most people in prison are dangerous, that there is a danger in giving that small subset of the population a vote. But this perspective is incorrect.

Unfortunately what is happening in this country right now in terms of incarceration is not us locking up more and more bad people. We are targeting certain populations and putting more and more people in jail for lesser and lesser offenses. There are so many examples of this that the briefest of internet searches will bring you alarming stories of justice denied and from plenty of reputable sources.

This the kind of thing that can only happen in a society that is willing to deny the existence of injustice for its own comfort, a society that will allow itself to be governed by fear.

The model you are using, criminal = bad guy = deserves punishment, isn't the model currently in operation in this country. We are not setting historical international records for incarceration because we are effectively isolating and punishing the most dangerous members of our society. We are here because we are willing to throw people away in the name of perceived safety and in a number of instances, an unwillingness to change unjust laws.

Finally, there are plenty of people who have massive influence over our government who also have a track record of proven disregard for other human beings and the world in which we live. I'm thinking of course of corporations, but also individuals. Some of those people are actually in government. You list war crimes in your litany, and while very very few people are serving time for war crimes, I can think of a few recent, current, and potential future presidents who could stand trial for them by the standards of international law.

All of what you say is true,

All of what you say is true, but once these people have served their time in prison and been released, theoretically ready to mingle with the rest of society again, why should they continue to lose out on the rights that come with citizenship/adulthood?

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