The Right to Vote & the Criminal Justice System

A person wearing a Restore Your Vote t-shirt talking to another person on a bench

In the United States, contact with the criminal justice system often leads to disenfranchisement.  These forms of disenfranchisement can vary.

Voters in jail pending trial or for misdemeanors are usually eligible to vote but cannot easily access the means to cast a ballot. People with felony convictions are often disenfranchised by state law well past their release from incarceration. Procedures for rights restoration after a felony conviction are often confusing or difficult to navigate. And other rights restoration procedures hinge access to the ballot on payment of fines and fees, leaving many too poor to vote.  

To provide equal access to voting for this historically disenfranchised community, CLC seeks to expand and simplify voting rights restoration laws, provide clear and accurate eligibility information to people with convictions, and ensure access to the ballot for those in our jails nationwide.  

Tens of millions of Americans have had some contact with the criminal justice system. Over twenty-three million Americans have been convicted of felonies. Millions more have been convicted of misdemeanors or have been arrested and jailed pretrial without ever being convicted of a crime.  

Most people understand that contact with the criminal justice system can have an impact on the right to vote, but few understand the varied and complex ways an arrest or conviction can work to disenfranchise justice-involved voters.  

Consider the example of felony disenfranchisement laws. These laws dictate when a felony conviction renders a voter ineligible to cast a ballot. Felony disenfranchisement laws vary greatly state to state. Some U.S. states have no restrictions on voting with a conviction, while others impose a lifetime ban upon a single felony conviction. Eleven states permanently disenfranchise some or all citizens convicted of felony offenses. These laws disenfranchise nearly 5 million Americans or more across the country and they disproportionately affect people of color. 

1 in 13 African Americans have had voting rights revoked, compared to 1 in 56 non African Americans

However, the negative impact of felony disenfranchisement laws only begins there. The differing criteria for both felony disenfranchisement and voting rights restoration across the states create a dense and confusing patchwork of voter eligibility law. Election officials are often untrained on felony disenfranchisement and rights restoration law and misinform citizens. Many Americans are eligible to restore their voting rights but the processes to do so are unnecessarily bureaucratic. Others are locked out of restoring their right to vote simply because they cannot afford to pay their fines and fees. And administrative errors often lead eligible citizens with past convictions to be turned away at the polls.  

Since the laws are confusing, there are few resources are available to assess voter eligibility after a conviction, and rights restoration is often burdensome, many Americans err on the side of simply not voting. Thus, these laws not only strip millions of their right to vote, they pose substantial barriers to voting for tens of millions more Americans.  

Moreover, the criminal justice system affects voting even for those who are never convicted of a crime. Jail-based disenfranchisement is another often overlooked way in which the criminal justice system deprives people—particularly low income, people of color—of their political voices. Half a million people are incarcerated in pretrial detention each day, people who have not been convicted of any crime and often simply cannot afford to pay bail—all of whom retain their right to vote. Americans do not lose the right to vote before they have been convicted of felonies even if they are incarcerated. Also, in most states, people do not lose the right to vote when they are incarcerated for a misdemeanor. However, because they are incarcerated, eligible jailed voters cannot access their polling places. Without infrastructure in place to provide these voters with alternative access to the ballot, they cannot exercise their constitutional right to vote. Unfortunately, few jails provide eligible voters with the resources they need to vote. It is time to take steps to ensure these voters have real access to the ballot box.  

Disenfranchisement not only affects individuals with past convictions or arrests; it also disempowers the minority communities to which many belong. In one final example, consider the effect of prison gerrymandering. In many states, incarcerated people are counted for the purposes of redistricting far from their homes in the often white, rural communities where they are incarcerated. They are then “represented” by someone who they cannot vote for and who has no connection to their social or political communities, inflating the political power of jurisdictions that are home to prisons at the expense of the jurisdictions that are home to citizens who are too often imprisoned. In 2019, Washington and Nevada joined the states that have put an end to this practice. More information and resources about ending prison gerrymandering are available from the Prison Policy Initiative.  

From felony disenfranchisement laws to money bail practices, many of the laws that create this system of disenfranchisement were deliberately designed to target and disempower people of color, and they continue to disproportionately impact people of color and distort our democracy today. Justice-involved Americans are citizens, they should have a say in deciding their community’s and the nation’s laws that directly impact their lives.  

If our democracy is really intended to be by the people and for the people, we must take steps to ensure that all voters can have their voices heard on Election Day.


In the last ten years, twenty-five states have passed laws that ease restrictions on voting after a felony conviction. Yet only Maine (21 Me. Rev. Stat Ch. 3 Sub. 2 §111), Vermont (17 Vt. Stat. Ch. 43 § 2121(a)), and Puerto Rico have no felony disenfranchisement at all. And only 16 states and the District of Columbia re-enfranchise all people automatically upon release from incarceration. Most states have work to do to chip away at laws that exclude people with felony convictions from voting.  

Types of Reforms 

Depending on the state, voting rights restoration reforms can take many forms. Reforms should aim to enfranchise as many people as possible; do so automatically; and avoid fines and fees requirements that discriminate based on wealth.  

Examples of recent reforms include:  

Removing fines and fees requirements 

Making rights restoration automatic and removing unnecessary hurdles 

  • In 2006, Connecticut repealed the requirement in its law that people with convictions present proof of rights restoration in order to register to vote. (CT. Gen. Stat. 9-46). 

Restoring voting rights to people on parole or probation 

Ensuring that returning citizens are registered to vote 

  • In 2019, Colorado passed a law not only restoring the right to vote to people on parole but also ensuring those citizens are provided voter education and access to voter registration. (Colo. Rev. Stat. 1-2-103(4)). 

Rights restoration reforms can be implemented by different actors, including: 

The legislature 

  • In 2018, the Louisiana Legislature passed a bill enfranchising people who have not been incarcerated in the last five years. (La. Rev. Stat. 18:102(A)(1), 104(C); 177(A)(1)). 

A governor 

Ballot initiative 

Most states restore voting rights automatically or at least have a path to voting rights restoration for people who are no longer incarcerated. The problem is, that many people do not know that they can vote again or that they can take steps to restore their voting rights. You can help by spreading the word about your state’s law and by helping people find out whether or not they can vote. 

CLC has created tools for community leaders and activists in the states with the most complicated disenfranchisement laws: AlabamaArizonaTennessee, and Iowa. For people in those states, check out our activist manuals here to understand the landscape in your state. Then reach out to CLC or to community partners to find out how you can get involved. 

To better understand how the law works in other states, check out

Success stories 

In 2017, Alabama passed a new law that limited the crimes that strip people of the right to vote from all felonies to about forty convictions. The law change has the potential to re-enfranchise tens of thousands, if not more than a hundred thousand people, but the state did not to educate people about the law change. CLC, in coalition with the Southern Poverty Law Center, hired organizers and engaged hundreds of citizen volunteers to train nearly three thousand community leaders on the law change and individually assist over 2,600 people in working to restore their right to vote. These trained community leaders and re-enfranchised citizens now continue to help people understand their voting rights and spread the word about the law change. 

How can states fix this problem? 

Simplify the law 

  • The easiest law to follow is one that does not disenfranchise anyone because of a felony conviction (like Maine (21 Me. Rev. Stat Ch. 3 Sub. 2 §111) and Vermont (17 Vt. Stat. Ch. 43 § 2121(a))). Short of abolishing felony disenfranchisement, the simplest system is one that re-enfranchises people when they exit incarceration. States should avoid systems that differentiate based on number of convictions, types of convictions, or require separate documentary requirements.  

Enact a robust notice and voter education requirements for people leaving state supervision 

  • Only some states provide people with convictions of notice of the restoration of their voting rights. Every state that withholds the right to vote for some people with convictions should also ensure that citizens are provided adequate guidance of when their voting rights are restored. The manner of notice also matters. In a 2014 study, researchers found that notification laws in North Carolina and New York made little different in post-incarceration participation but a similar notification in Iowa increased turnout by 5 to 10 percentage points. The lessons from that study are that the form of a notice matters. Notices should be short, easy to read, and delivered separately from other documents distributed at discharge.

Jail voting reforms are aimed at providing incarcerated, eligible voters with the tools they need to access the ballot and exercise their constitutional right to vote. Advocacy in this space, though, can embrace a spectrum of different reforms and approaches. The following sections considers who might have the power to act to address jail-based disenfranchisement and how.   

Approaches to fighting jail-based disenfranchisement:  

Build voter education and outreach infrastructure in jails.  

Require local election officials and/or sheriffs to create and publish jail ballot access plans.  

  • Rules like this have been promulgated by the Secretaries of State in Colorado and Arizona over the last two years.  

Push for election infrastructure that is accessible to all eligible, jailed voters, even those arrested close to Election Day.  

Expand eligibility.  

  • Last year, California passed a bill that expanded the pool of eligible voters to include voters who had been convicted of a felony but who were serving sentences in local jails.  

Jail voting reforms can be implemented by a number of actors, including:  

Secretaries of State or the Head of a State Department of Corrections 

  • These officials are well positioned to promulgate rules that require the officials on the ground be trained on how to serve jailed voters, create enfranchisement plans, and do mandated outreach.  

State Legislatures 

  • State legislatures can pass bills requiring election officials create enfranchisement plans, engage in outreach, or do any number of things to address this issue. They can also expand the pool of eligible voters or create an enfranchisement process specifically for jails, like expanding emergency voting or putting polling places in jails.  

Local Governments 

  • Local governments often have authority over jails and elections. They can also act to expand access by requiring officials to create or implement jail voting plans. 

Sheriffs/County Clerks  

  • These officials can take action that will have a direct impact on incarcerated voters. They have the power to allow civic engagement programming, to provide outreach and support to incarcerated voters, and to structure how voting will work inside the jail.  


  • You can engage in state or local advocacy to push any of the officials above to take action to enfranchise jailed voters. You can also work with or create programs that provide direct outreach and support to voters in your local jail.  

If you have specific questions about jail voting advocacy or the right to vote from jail please email [email protected]


If you have questions about this policy proposal, we'd love to hear from you! Just e-mail us. 

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