Felony Disenfranchisement: Setting the Record Straighter

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.

Surprising no one who understands America’s criminal justice system, the burden of felony disenfranchisement laws falls disproportionately on black Americans. The United States disenfranchises 7.7% of its black citizens compared to 1.8% of the rest of its population. Back to Florida: 23% of black adults there—nearly one in four—are disenfranchised. Permanently.

If statutory disenfranchisement and structural racism weren’t bad enough, disenfranchisement through ignorance is rampant. Take my grocery store disenfranchiser.  Widespread dissemination of misinformation is a consequence of a number of problems including our failure to properly fund our elections systems, a confounding web of frequently changing voter eligibility laws that vary state to state, and general confusion about criminal justice system processes. In many states, the right to vote turns on the difference between probation and parole. And in California, recent changes to voting laws requires an understanding of the difference between Post Release Community Supervision (PRCS), mandatory supervision, probation, and parole.

In fairness, it’s not only individuals like Ms. Clipboard Gripper who get it wrong. Last night I asked the internet, “Can I vote while I’m on PRCS?” (Spoiler alert, the answer is yes.) The internet sent me to a number of sites that give the wrong, disenfranchising answer. These include the pages of many public defender’s offices, including the largest in the state. (That wrong answer was extra painful to read because it came right after this preamble: “There is a lot of confusion about the impact of a criminal conviction on voting rights. To set the record straight. . . .” ).

Which brings me to voter registration Goal Number 3: Organizations that care about voting rights — unless you have the resources and expertise to keep your websites updated, accurate, and enfranchising, then take down details about voting laws and instead re-direct people to sites with up-to-date information and recent legal and political developments.

Advocates are working to improve California’s voting laws. One bill now sitting on Governor’s Brown’s desk, AB 2466 (Weber), would restore voting rights to tens of thousands of people sentenced to jail for low-level, non-serious, nonviolent felony Realignment offenses. But even under California’s current laws, people on any type of probation can register and vote. Most people currently in custody in California jails can register and vote by mail while they are in jail. Once people sentenced to prison are discharged from felony parole, they can register and vote, even if they have felony convictions, even if they have been to prison in the past, and even if they remain on law enforcement registries. And they can register to vote without taking any steps to restore their civil rights, such as obtaining a pardon or Certificate of Rehabilitation. They simply have to register and vote. And they should do it now: In California, October 24 is the deadline to register to vote in the November 8 election.

America is the America it can and should be only when voting rights are fully extended and fully exercised. Full stop.

But it’s also worth noting one practical reason to fix our punitive and overreaching felony disenfranchisement laws. In November, Californians will vote on initiatives to end the death penalty, legalize marijuana, increase parole opportunities for people convicted of non-violent crimes, and limit the practice of trying children in adult court, among others. Which experts do I want weighing in on these criminal justice reform measures? People who have been directly impacted by existing laws and know from personal experience which polices will increase public safety and economic stability in our communities.

In California, we have fewer than 50 days left to empower all eligible voters people to register. Let’s grip our clipboards, direct our horror at the disenfranchising myths about voting rights, and get to it.


More information on the loss and restoration of voting rights is available in the CCRC’s state-by-state guides to rights restoration, and our 50-state comparison chart.

Eliza Hersh

Eliza Hersh is a CCRC Board Member and a 2016 Soros Justice Fellow at Berkeley Law School’s Center for the Study of Law & Society. The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Open Society Foundations.

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