Restrictions on Voting Rights for Felons Remain a Barrier to Universal Suffrage

By Brendan Conley, staff writer – July 27, 2012

Women in the United States won the right to vote in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. African Americans in Southern states gained effective ballot access in 1965, with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. However, there is one class of competent adult Americans who can still be denied the right to vote: people with felony convictions.

A new report [1] by The Sentencing Project reveals that 5.85 million U.S. citizens are denied the right to vote because they have been convicted of a felony. Researchers found that about 2.5 percent of Americans of voting age, or about one in 40 potential voters, are denied that right because of such restrictions.

The report was produced by sociology professors from the University of Minnesota and New York University.

Felon disenfranchisement has increased greatly in recent years as states not only impose harsher criminal penalties but tighten restrictions on voting rights. According to the report, about 1.17 million people were disenfranchised in 1976, increasing to 3.34 million in 1996 and 5.85 million in 2010.

The states vary widely in their approaches to felon disenfranchisement. In six Southern states – Florida, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Mississippi – more than seven percent of adults have lost the right to vote.

African Americans have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions more than the rest of the population, with a rate of nearly 7.7 percent, compared to 1.8 percent for the non-African American population.

The state of Florida is far and away the leader in felon disenfranchisement, with 1.5 million people prevented from voting, including 1.3 million who are no longer incarcerated. That means more than one in 10 Floridians of voting age are prevented from casting a ballot because of their criminal records. For African Americans in Florida, the rate is nearly one in four.

Florida is a perennial swing state, and in 2000, a flawed list of felons to be purged from the polls helped decide the Presidential election. This year, Gov. Rick Scott has vowed to move forward with a new purge of felons and non-citizens. Florida has both a tough approach to criminal justice and an unforgiving law on voting rights for felons.

Gov. Scott recently reversed rules that allowed most former felons to vote after serving time. Now, to apply to the governor for reinstatement of voting rights, there is a five-year waiting period for non-violent offenders and a seven-year period for those convicted of violent offenses.

The 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Richard v. Ramirez enshrined the right of states to prohibit felons from voting, ruling that Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment properly allows states to restrict voting rights “for participation in rebellion or other crime.” [2] The decision has withstood many challenges, including a 2010 lawsuit by Massachusetts prison inmates who claimed that that state’s felon disenfranchisement policy violated the Voting Rights Act because it disproportionately affected minorities. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case. [3]

According to a report [4] by ProCon.org, a nonprofit research group, the vast majority of states – a total of 36, plus the District of Columbia – provide for felons to regain their suffrage after their sentences are complete or after they have completed parole or probation.

Only 12 states allow for felons to permanently lose the right to vote, and the laws vary. Most provide for a former felon to apply for reinstatement of voting rights, either to the governor or clemency board. In some states, such as Alabama and Tennessee, people convicted of certain violent felonies can never have their rights restored.

Ten states even prevent misdemeanor offenders from voting while they are incarcerated. The other 40 states provide for absentee ballots for misdemeanor convicts in jail during an election.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on the voting rights of people convicted of a crime. In those states, felons never lose their right to vote, and anyone in jail or prison may vote by absentee ballot.

Disenfranchisement based on incarceration or a criminal conviction weighs heavily on ex-felons. According to The Sentencing Project, 45 percent of disenfranchised people are former felons who have completed their sentences, for a total of 2.6 million Americans. People currently serving time in prison account for about 1.4 million or 24 percent of the total, while people on probation or parole account for 30 percent. Inmates in jails make up one percent of the disenfranchised. [5]

One Florida activist hopes to change the state’s status as the leader in felon disenfranchisement. Desmond Meade, a former felon himself who now studies law at Florida International University, is a leader of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition.

“Every time a person is disenfranchised in a community, that weakens that community’s political voice,” Meade told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “And once their political voice has been weakened, they find it harder to get the attention of elected officials as far as public services, public safety, schools or parks, anything like that.” [6]

In Virginia, a former Richmond city councilman who was convicted of tax fraud has filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s felon disenfranchisement laws. Sa’ad El-Amin was convicted in 2003, when he was registered to vote and serving on Richmond City Council. He completed supervised release in 2009 and now wants to regain his right to vote.

According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, El-Amin’s lawsuit makes the argument that the state of Virginia did not fairly apply Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides for disenfranchisement for rebellion and other crimes. Virginia seceded from the Union during the Civil War, and after Reconstruction, the state did not disenfranchise the mostly white men who participated in the rebellion. Felony disenfranchisement, however, has resulted in 20 percent of the African American population in the state losing the right to vote. [7]

1. http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_State_Level_Estimates_of_Felon_Disen_2010.pdf
2. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/scripts/getcase.pl?court=US&vol=418&invol=24
3. http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2010/1018/Supreme-Court-rejects-Massachusetts-felons-voting-rights-challenge
4. http://felonvoting.procon.org/view.resource.php?resourceID=286
5. http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_State_Level_Estimates_of_Felon_Disen_2010.pdf
6. http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/2012-07-12/news/fl-florida-felon-voting-rights-exclusion-20120712_1_felons-florida-rights-restoration-coalition-christopher-uggen
7. http://www2.timesdispatch.com/news/2012/jul/25/tdmet03-ex-councilman-challenges-felony-disenfranc-ar-2081471/