WHAT IT IS
- A felon is an individual who has been convicted of a serious crime (called a felony). [Merriam-Webster]
- Serious crimes include burglary, rape, homicide, murder, and drug possession. [Prison Policy Initiative]
- A majority of felons are convicted of non-violent crimes. [Federal Bureau of Prisons]
- Disenfranchisement is preventing a person or group of people from the right to vote. [Merriam-Webster]
- ~6 million Americans were unable to vote in the 2016 presidential election due to felony disenfranchisement laws. [The New York Times]
- Each state has different laws in place to either grant or limit previously convicted felons from voting.
- In 1792, Kentucky was the first state to pass a criminal disenfranchisement law. The state made it a lifetime ban in 1891. [U.S Commission on Civil Rights]
- Maine and Vermont place no voting restrictions on convicted felons, allowing them to vote while incarcerated. [The New York Times]
- Kentucky, Iowa, Florida, and Virginia impose a lifetime voting ban on felons. [American Civil Liberties Union]
- Felon voting rights could be restored on a case-by-case basis by appealing the governor or a court. [National Conference of State Legislatures]
WHY IT MATTERS
CIVICS: The fight for voting rights continues to this day, with high-stakes battles lost and won through decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court.
- 1974: Supreme Court ruled that disenfranchising convicted felons does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution,
- 1985: Supreme Court ruled that criminal disenfranchisement is legal if there is no racially discriminatory intent,
- 2020: Supreme Court ruled that FL can require felons to pay outstanding debt before registering to vote.
SOCIAL: During the Jim Crow era, several states adopted new laws or reconfigured preexisting laws to suppress newly enfranchised Black Americans. Targeting the criminal justice system was a popular method the suppress the Black American community. Purposeful confusion or multi-step legal barriers is another method disenfranchised countless other Americans. [American Civil Liberties Union] These laws and policies are largely still in place.
- 1 in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, (4x greater than white Americans)
- Over 7.4% of the adult Black population is disenfranchised (1.8% of white Americans are disenfranchised)
- Black disenfranchisement rates also vary significantly by state. In Florida (21%), Kentucky (26%), Tennessee (21%), and Virginia (22%), more than one in five African Americans is disenfranchised. [The Sentencing Project]
I am a citizen
Once out of prison, individuals are expected to "reintegrate into the community" and are required to be law-abiding citizens which includes paying state and federal taxes.
- “The message that comes across to them is: Yes, you have all the responsibilities of a citizen now, but you’re basically still a second-class citizen because we are not permitting you to be engaged in the political process," -Christopher Uggen, professor at the University of Minnesota
Restoration of Civil Rights
Some argue that felons deserve a second chance; they should not have their bad decisions haunt them for rest of their lives.[NPR]
Some believe the practice of "civil death" does not fit with modern society. Some believe felons have repaid their debt to society by serving time in prison and should be restored their civil rights after. [The Sentencing Project: Research and Advocacy for Reform]
NO! NO VOTE!
Some argue there must be serious consequences for serious crimes. Some believe that the threat of loss of civil rights will prevent serious crimes from occurring.*
*This claim has been debunked by the National Institutes of Justice.
Some believe that convicted felons have demonstrated poor judgment and should not be allowed to impact society with their vote. [Journal of Applied Philosophy]
- "We don’t let everyone vote, because there are certain minimum, objective standards — of responsibility, trustworthiness, and commitment to our laws — that we require of people before they can be entrusted with a role in the solemn enterprise of self-government. Children, noncitizens, the mentally incompetent, and those who have committed serious crimes against their fellow citizens don’t meet those standards.” -Roger Clegg, President at the Center for Equal Opportunity
"Civil death" (aka: removal of voting rights) as a punishment for crimes dates back to Ancient Athens, Ancient Rome, and Medieval Europe. [ProCon.org] The practice was then brought to America when the land was colonized by European countries. [Encyclopedia Britannica]
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Nov. 2015: Kentucky governor restores voting rights to nonviolent felons. It was immediately reversed by the incoming governor. [Brennan Center for Justice]
Apr. 2016: Virginia (VA) governor signs executive order to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 convicted felons. The VA Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional 3 months later. [NPR]
- Nov. 2018: Florida (FL) voters passed a state constitutional amendment that would restore the voting rights for non-violent felons. This impacted around 1.7 million Americans. [NPR]
- May 13, 2020: FL legislature passed a law that requires people with felony convictions to pay off restitution, court fees, and fines before they can register to vote. [The Washington Post]
- Feb. 19, 2020: A federal appeals court ruled that requiring former felons to pay fines before voting again violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. FL governor Ron DeSantis appealed the decision. [The Herald-Tribute]
- July 16, 2020: In a 7-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that FL can require felons to pay the outstanding debt before registering to vote. The Justices did not explain their decision. [Politico]
- July 24, 2020: LeBron James' More Than A Vote will donate $100,000 to help pay outstanding court debt of FL ex-felons so they can register to vote. [Politico]
- Aug. 5, 2020: Iowa governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to former felons who have completed their sentence, including probation. [NPR]
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
- See a full historical timeline of criminal disenfranchisement from ProCon.org
- Are there other forms of disenfranchisement?
- Nearly two-thirds of FL voters agreed to restore voting rights to felons. [Politico] Did the FL legislature, appointed by the people to serve the people, act against what voters wanted? When is it appropriate for appointed leaders to follow the majority will of the people? When might it be necessary to go against the will of the people?
In 2002, the Senate killed an amendment to the Voting Rights Act of 2001 that would have granted felons the right to vote in federal (presidential) elections. Should Congress try again?
How does the ongoing battle show the flexibility of law and policy? How does the timeline illustrate how quickly, and slowly, these decisions can be made?
Felony conviction rates are at a historical high in every state in the U.S. Read more about this concerning trend from PBS News Hour.