The right to vote and to cast a free and secret ballot is supposed to be the cornerstone of democracy. Yet, upwards of 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of a past felony conviction. In fact, felons are the only group who is banned from voting by law. While Maine and Vermont allow all residents to vote, even residents serving time in jail, every other state has enacted laws that ban those serving time from voting. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disenfranchise people convicted of felonies even after they have served their time.

The exclusion of lawbreakers from the political process dates back hundreds of years. Colonial law incorporated provisions that restricted or eliminated the rights of felons to vote. However, today's laws that restrict voting rights owe their history to the post-civil war reconstruction era. Southern states in particular worried about the potential effects of the15th amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote. These states enacted a series of "Jim Crow" laws, such as poll taxes and literacy requirements, as a means to disenfranchise voters. Banning people with felony convictions from voting significantly limits the number of African-Americans who can vote. According to the Sentencing Project, "1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, is disenfranchised, a rate seven-times the national average."

Over the last few years, advocates of felon voting rights have helped to successfully dismantle some laws, but the fight continues and millions of citizens every election are unable to vote because they have a felony conviction on their record.

To learn more about felon disenfranchisement visit The Sentencing Project.


Find the state processes for ex-felon re-enfranchisement This is especially useful if you are an ex-felon, a friend/family member of an ex-felon or are simply curious about the policies and procedures individual states establish.

[ More resources on felon disenfranchisement ]  

No longer barred from voting

By Katharine Mieszkowski
Published November 8th 2006 in Salon.com
Congratulations are due to 15,000 American citizens in Rhode Island, who yesterday couldn't have voted in the election if they'd wanted to, but now will have that right. Tuesday, voters in Rhode Island passed a constitutional amendment that restores voting rights to people who have been convicted of a felony, and who are now out of prison, but still on probation or parole. It was a close race with the referendum passing with just 51.5 percent of the vote. Of course, those who will benefit from the amendment couldn't weigh in on it at the polls.

In many states, former felons aren't allowed to vote, even after they're out of prison. The passing of the Rhode Island referendum represents the first time in U.S. history that voters have elected to expand the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated at the polls. "We've often been told that the public is tough on crime, and is not receptive to the needs of people in prison. I think that this is a statement from the voters of Rhode Island that they view voting and community integration, as an important component of public safety," said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy group. "This makes sense both from the point of democratic participation and encouraging people leaving prison to become connected with positive institutions in the community."