In 2016, 6 million US citizens could not register to vote, due to prior criminal offences, even if they had completed their sentence: 2.5% of the total US voting age population.
Being deprived of the right to vote is commonly accepted as part of the punishment. However, there is no reasonable rationale to deprive someone from voting rights after they have completed their sentence. Restoring the right to vote can be a small, but significant, part of the rehabilitation of ex-convicts – and help reintegrate them into society as productive citizens.
Disenfranchisement varies tremendously by state
The vast majority of states only restrict access to registration to people who are currently in prison, on parole or in probation. However, 12 states also restrict registration post completion of the sentence – and in half of these states – Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia – more than 7 percent of the adult population is disenfranchised.
Fortunately, public opinion seems to be moving slowly against depriving citizens of their voting rights for life.
For starters, huge shout-out to the state of Alabama for clarifying their laws this year – and restoring the right to vote to tens of thousands of citizens: the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, approved by the state legislature in 2017, establishes a list of less than 50 crimes of moral turpitude. Any person convicted of committing one of these crimes will lose the right to vote permanently, however all others can register to vote after completing their sentence. This clarification of law, decided by the Republicans in charge of all of the state levers of power, was a fantastic step in the right direction and deserves to be commended – and was celebrated by thousands of ex-convicts applying for the right to vote and exercising their rights again in 2017.
One of those voters, Nuris Bigelow, 33, was the subject of a viral video in which she got emotional about casting her vote. “My eyes just burning. Ain’t nobody crying,” she said after voting for the very first time.
— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) December 12, 2017
Biggest opportunity for change: Florida
The biggest number of disenfranchised voters is in Florida, given the size of the state combined with its restrictive laws: nearly 1.7 million Florida citizens are permanently disenfranchised from voting in state and federal elections because of being former felons. Disenfranchisement has climbed from 2.6 percent of the state’s adult citizens in 1980, to 10.4 percent today, the highest rate in the nation, including one in five adult African Americans.
Although there is a process to apply for clemency, it is time consuming and subject to the whims of whichever governor is in place – and the current governor of the state, Rick Scott, has been very slow to offer clemency, approving 50 times fewer requests than his predecessor and adding hurdles to the process.
Fortunately, there is a major initiative this year to get the Voting Restoration Amendment on the ballot for the 2018 elections, lead by the Second Chances organization – which is well on track to achieve their goal, as they had already collected 900,000 signatures in November against their target of 1 million signatures.
Organizations fighting against disenfranchisement
A non-partisan organization which has been fighting for decades for the restoration of voting rights for ex-convicts is the Sentencing Project, which combines media campaigns with strategic advocacy for policy reform. The Sentencing Project appears to have a significant impact on helping inform public discussions with their research, despite a pretty small budget and team.
They are broadly focused on the challenges of mass incarceration (not just voting rights).
The Brennan Center for Justice is another organization which aims to tackle disenfranchisement. The BCJ addresses a broad span of topics ranging from voting rights, to money in politics and the judiciary.