On election day in 2016, Crystal Mason, a Texas mother of three, cast a provisional ballot. She was unaware that Texas considered her ineligible to vote because she was on federal supervised release at the time. Six months later she was arrested. A year and a half later, she was convicted of voter fraud and sentenced to five years in prison. Mason, who is Black, believes that her prosecution was “politically and racially charged.” An appeals court upheld the conviction, ruling that whether Mason knew she was ineligible to vote was irrelevant to the case against her. She is pursuing further appeals.
At trial, one of Mason’s supervision officers, Ken Mays, testified that he had not informed her that she could not vote in Texas while on federal supervised release because it was not part of standard procedure: “That’s just not something we do.”
Now, a few years later, a new executive order issued by President Joe Biden will change standard procedure to require the notice Ms. Mason never received. The order also directs the Justice Department to facilitate voting for people in federal custody or on supervision who are eligible to vote in their state of residence.
In recent years, there has been growing attention to the racist origins of felony disenfranchisement, to its racially disparate effect, and to how restoration of voting rights strengthens our democracy. This past Sunday, March 7, 2021, was the 56th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,” an infamous day when Alabama troopers violently beat civil rights marchers—including the late John Lewis, civil rights leader and longtime member of Congress—on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. While delivering an address to mark the occasion, President Biden announced that he had issued an Executive Order directing every federal agency to promote access to voting.
The Order includes an ambitious directive to the Attorney General to provide voter education materials to hundreds of thousands of individuals in federal custody, under federal supervision, or formerly incarcerated, and to facilitate voting for those who are eligible under state law. See Sec. 9 (“Ensuring Access to Voter Registration for Eligible Individuals in Federal Custody”). This represents “the first time the federal government has ever taken action to ensure justice-involved voters can participate equally in our democracy.”
As Crystal Mason’s case demonstrates, many people with a record lack clear information about their eligibility to vote, due to misinformation and the complexity of state laws and policies governing voting rights for people with a record. (CCRC documents and explains these laws and policies in our 50-state resources.) Further, eligible voters in jail and prison face practical challenges that often make registration and voting difficult or impossible.
Newly-confirmed Attorney General Merrick Garland will surely direct sufficient resources and expertise to implementing this directive. The result could be a radical expansion of voting education and access for millions of individuals with federal criminal records, with ripple effects benefiting tens of millions with state criminal records. Moreover, given the widespread racial disparities in the criminal justice system, this effort could significantly improve access to voting for Black communities and other communities of color, issues that Garland prioritized at his Senate confirmation hearing.
This article briefly outlines the state of the law governing loss and restoration of voting rights due to conviction. It then reviews the specifics of Biden’s directive, discussing its potential impact on four groups: (1) individuals in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons; (2) individuals detained in jails under contracts with U.S. Marshal Service; (3) individuals under the supervision of the Office of Probation and Pretrial Services in the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts; and (4) formerly incarcerated individuals.