Felony disenfranchisement, state by state

217523Felony 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.  

These resources show just how much variation there is among the states when it comes to felony disenfranchisement: In every state except Maine and Vermont, at least some people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote.  In 16 states and the District of Columbia only those sentenced to prison lose the right to vote, and in 28 states all or most felony offenders are restored to the franchise after completion of sentence.  Only four states (Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia) apply a lifetime bar to all felony offenders which may only be lifted by executive action or, in the case of Kentucky, expungement.  Seven states apply a lifetime bar to selected categories of offenses or offenders:  two of these seven apply it to many (Alabama and Mississippi), while two apply it to very few (Delaware and Tennessee).  Of the other three states in this group, one applies the lifetime bar only to recidivists (Arizona) while two apply it based on serious violence and recidivism (Nevada and Wyoming).    

Our state-by-state profiles include detailed information on how these laws and policies have changed in recent years.  With restoration of voting rights left entirely to executive discretion in most of the states with lifetime bans, the availability of relief and the way that it is dispensed can change drastically depending on who is in office and how they choose to exercise their authority.  Virginia provides the most recent example of this:  Earlier this year the state’s Supreme Court struck down a series of executive orders issued by Governor Terry McAuliffe that purported to restore voting rights automatically to everyone who had completed their sentence and satisfied attendant financial obligations.  In response, McAuliffe vowed to restore the right to vote on an individual basis to more than 200,000 individuals affected by his order.  By way of contrast, under Florida’s current governor voting rights have been restored to fewer than a thousand people in 2014 and 2015.  Recent developments in law and policy have also affected the extent of disenfranchisement in Alabama, California, Delaware, Iowa, and Maryland.

For an overview of the felony voting laws in each state — and the law surrounding other civil rights such as jury participation, firearm possession, and the right to hold public office — view our 50-state chart here.

More in-depth descriptions of each states’ laws and policies can be found in our state-by-state profiles on “Restoration of Rights, Pardon, Sealing & Expungement,” accessible via the links below: