In a positive step forward for helping people with past felony convictions exercise their freedom to vote, the Department of Justice (DOJ) has released a “Guide to State Voting Rules that Apply After Criminal Convictions.”
This guide draws upon, and links to, Campaign Legal Center’s (CLC) Restore Your Vote toolkit to provide information to people with prior felony convictions, and the organizations that work with them, that makes it easier to navigate the rights restoration process using flowcharts to help people determine whether they can vote or not.
The guide also provides the Restore Your Vote email and hotline as a resource and directs people to state-specific resources that can help, like their Secretary of State, Department of State, Board of Elections or Elections Commission.
Currently, there are an estimated 24 million Americans with felony convictions across the country. While many states allow people with felony convictions to vote, millions remain disenfranchised because of the challenging and daunting process to get their freedom to vote restored.
Often, unconstitutional barriers like asking would-be voters to pay fines, fees and restitution before they can register — can contribute to this problem. However, one of the main challenges is that information about how to get the right to vote restored can be hard to find.
This, along with the fact that many states have intentionally complex, confusing rights restoration processes, prevents voters from being able to exercise their freedom to vote.
Many people mistakenly believe that they permanently lose the right to vote after committing any felony. While rare, instances where people have been prosecuted for unknowingly voting while ineligible exacerbate this misconception and intimidate potential voters.
In March 2021, President Joe Biden issued an executive order to improve voting access, which sought to eliminate barriers to voting by requiring each federal agency to play a more active role in facilitating voter registration and voting.
In a June 2021 letter, CLC pressed these agencies to focus on how certain voters — like voters of color, Native American voters, voters with disabilities, low-income voters, voters with past felony convictions, student voters and other historically marginalized constituencies — faced substantial, unique barriers to exercising their freedom to vote.
To address the specific barriers that jailed voters and voters with past felony convictions encounter, CLC sent follow up letters to six federal agencies in December 2021.
These letters highlighted the need for simple, authoritative tools that would allow people with felony convictions to determine their eligibility based on the details of those convictions and the laws of the state that they reside in.
CLC suggested incorporating an easy-to-follow flowchart of questions, like those on the Restore Your Vote website, as a model that could help users navigate their state’s process.
The fact that Restore Your Vote’s design has been incorporated into the DOJ’s guide speaks to its efficacy at conveying information about rights restoration and helping people to regain the right to vote.
For instance, a Vanderbilt Law Review study published in April 2022 focusing on voters with past felony convictions in Florida during the 2020 elections found that outreach done by Restore Your Vote increased voter turnout among voters with past convictions that owed no fines and fees by 16%.
It also showed that by informing voters with past convictions of a debt relief program, Restore Your Vote helped their turnout grow by 26%.
Our democracy works best when all citizens can vote without barriers. By providing direct assistance to individuals, collaborating with leaders in impacted communities and giving people accurate information, Restore Your Vote will continue working to help those with past felony convictions regain their freedom to vote, so they can be full, active participants in our democracy.