Felony disenfranchisement has become a hot topic as election day looms, and rightfully so given the significant impact that conviction-based loss of voting rights has on the makeup of the electorate and the slim margins by which many national elections are decided. In the perennial swing state of Florida, for example, over 10 percent of the entire adult population is barred from voting for life because of a felony conviction. Within that group lies an astounding 21.3 percent of the state’s African-American population.
Those numbers come from a new Sentencing Project report, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, which attempts to determine just how many individuals are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction in each state, and how those numbers have changed over time. It estimates that 6.1 million individuals are ineligible to vote nationwide because of a felony conviction, and that 1 in 13 African-Americans are barred from the polls due to a conviction.
Florida leads the nation in felony disenfranchisement, with Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee close behind. Kentucky and Virginia (another swing state) disenfranchise the largest share of their African-American population, at 26.2 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively, with Florida close behind at 21.3 percent. The high level of disenfranchisement in these states is largely due to the fact that all but one (Tennessee) strip individuals convicted of felonies of their voting rights for life absent discretionary executive action.
Even in states that restore the right to vote automatically, many convicted people assume they cannot vote and therefore do not register.
The laws on felony disenfranchisement differ widely from state to state. Our 50-state chart on the “Loss and Restoration of Civil Rights and Firearm Privileges” and our state-by-state profiles of restoration of rights provisions describe the law and policy on felony disenfranchisement in each state, as well as the mechanisms by which convicted individuals are restored to the franchise.
Recently, a woman standing outside of a Berkeley grocery store asked if I wanted to register to vote. I asked her, “Can I vote if I’m on probation?” She looked at me with horror, gripped her clipboard, and physically recoiled from me and the cantaloupe I was holding. Once she regained some composure, she sincerely, confidently, and erroneously informed me that California’s laws prohibit voting while on probation.
That encounter inspired me to draft these goals for all of the voter registration advocates (including me!) working the sidewalks this election season:
1: Practice not physically recoiling in horror from people we encounter in life.
2: Learn the voting laws in our jurisdictions to avoid disenfranchisement through disinformation.
Each state has its own laws about voting following a felony conviction. Two states never disenfranchise voters following conviction. (Hey, Maine! Hey, Vermont!) Some states permanently terminate the voting rights of outrageous numbers of its citizens: Florida’s draconian voting laws disenfranchise 10% of its total population. In 2000, Florida disenfranchised 600,000 citizens with felony convictions. That same year, its presidential race was decided by 537 votes.
The New York Times has two great Sunday editorials on issues relating to collateral consequences. One deals with the issue of labeling people with a criminal record, of special concern when headline writers seem unable to resist using what Bill Keller at the Marshall Project recently called “the other F-word.” The editorial points out that ugly demeaning labels like “convict” and “felon” are “an unfair life sentence.” Let us hope the message reaches newsrooms across the country, and that journalists (especially headline writers) will find another way of describing people with a criminal record.
The Times also has another very fine editorial on Virginia Governor McAuliffe’s restoration of the vote to more than 200,000 individuals, pointing out that his authority under the Virginia Constitution is indisputable.
A very good day for the editorial staff of the Gray Lady, whose editorial page is setting an example of enlightened thinking about criminal law issues – notably including the collateral consequences of conviction.
On April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring civil rights to more than 200,000 individuals once convicted of felonies. His courageous action is welcome and long overdue, and there are now only three states nationwide that permanently disenfranchise people based on a felony conviction. The Governor’s press release promises new restoration orders on a regular monthly basis as additional individuals become eligible — the model followed in Iowa between 2005 and 2011, when convicted individuals were restored to the franchise under a similar executive process before it was discontinued by a Republican governor.
The one sour note on an otherwise happy occasion was the pervasive use of the word “felon” in print and media accounts to describe the beneficiaries of Governor McAuliffe’s action. This ugly stigmatizing label has been broadly criticized as counterproductive to reintegration efforts, perpetuating stereotypes about people with a criminal record and encouraging discrimination against them. While the Governor himself was careful with his language, not a single major newspaper reporting on his action could resist including the word in its headline. Read more
The editors of the New York Times are critical of Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s recent veto of a law that would have allowed anyone with a felony conviction to vote if they are living in the free community. See “A Bad Voting Ban,” June 1, 2015. Maryland’s law now disenfranchises anyone convicted of a “felony and . . . actually serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment, including any term of parole or probation, for the conviction.” The Times editorial points out that Maryland changed its law to restore voting rights automatically upon completion of sentence in 2007, and that disenfranchisement based upon conviction is generally a punitive relic of slavery.
So if felony disenfranchisement laws are punitive relics, why should they be applied to anyone, even people who are still in prison? The logic of the Times editors’ position would seem to support voting by prisoners, as happens in Vermont and Maine and in many parts of Europe. An argument against voting by prisoners based on disenfranchisement as an integral part of court-imposed punishment would apply equally to probationers and parolees. The notion that prisoners no longer have a connection to their communities is a self-fulfilling prophecy that runs against current policies of encouraging prisoner reentry. If there are practical reasons to bar prisoners from jury service and political office, they do not apply to voting when absentee ballots have become commonplace.