This spring, the U.S. passed a major milestone in the fight against felony disenfranchisement: a majority of states now let people with felony convictions vote after they have been released from prison and return to their communities, even if they are still serving probation or parole.
Felony disenfranchisement laws, which take away someone’s freedom to vote if they have been convicted of a felony, have long been a stain on American democracy. They proliferated in the United States as an intentional scheme to strip Black Americans of their freedom to vote and continue to disproportionately impact Black voters.
Today, over 4.6 million Americans are denied a voice in our democracy because of a past felony conviction. While we’re at a watershed moment, we still have a long way to go to abolish felony disenfranchisement altogether.
All citizens, regardless of whether they have a felony conviction, should have the freedom to vote. To help achieve this, Campaign Legal Center (CLC) supports “universal enfranchisement” bills that give people who are currently or formerly incarcerated the freedom to vote.
So far, only two states—Vermont and Maine—and the District of Columbia never strip people of the right to vote for a felony conviction, even when they are incarcerated. However, a growing number of states are taking steps to abolish felony disenfranchisement.
This spring, CLC supported bills in Massachusetts, Oregon, Connecticut and Illinois that would restore the right to vote to incarcerated individuals. Our democracy works best when every voter can participate in it, but, as our testimony points out, current law disproportionately silences Black and brown voters.
Felony disenfranchisement also serves no legitimate purpose within the criminal legal system and actually hinders rehabilitation and re-entry. In fact, research has shown that giving people impacted by the criminal legal system the freedom to vote promotes public safety.
Abolishing felony disenfranchisement laws also helps prevent de facto disenfranchisement by giving everyone the freedom to vote, regardless of their experience with the criminal legal system.
De facto disenfranchisement happens when there is confusion and misinformation around the rules for voting after being convicted of a felony. This can lead many people with past convictions—and election officials—to wrongly believe a voter cannot register or cast a ballot, even if they are eligible.
Felony disenfranchisement laws are rooted in efforts to silence Black and brown voters by denying them the freedom to vote. These laws proliferated during the Jim Crow era with the explicit and open purpose of preventing Black Americans from voting.
Disenfranchisement laws still serve that purpose today, stripping Black citizens of the freedom to vote at more than three times the rate of the general population nationwide. It is time for America to live up to its promise of democracy for all. We can do that by passing laws that end felony disfranchisement and guarantee every American has the freedom to vote.
People with felony convictions can find out if they are eligible to vote by using CLC’s free, confidential tool at restoreyourvote.org.