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 ]  

Crist ready to restore ex-convicts' rights

By Gary Fineout
Published April 3rd 2007 in The Miami Herald
Gov. Charlie Crist has called a special meeting of the state's clemency board on Thursday to unveil his proposal to speed up the restoration of civil rights to convicts who have finished their prison sentences.

Noting that it is a ''week of forgiveness,'' a reference to Good Friday and Easter, Crist said that he is ''hopeful'' that fellow members of the board -- Attorney General Bill McCollum, Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson -- will sign off on the proposal.

Florida is one of the few states where criminals convicted of felonies are not automatically given their civil rights -- which includes voting rights, the ability to apply for professional licenses or the right to serve on a jury -- after they are released.


Many criminals can gain their rights without a hearing, but those with more serious offenses must go before the governor and Cabinet for a vote, a process that can take months and even years.

''I believe that in my heart everyone deserves a second chance,'' said Crist. ``They deserve an opportunity to get on with productive lives.''


On the campaign trail last year, Crist said he was in favor of automatic restoration of civil rights for everyone, regardless of the crime. But he has run into trouble getting members of the clemency board to go along.

Crist has made changes in an effort to win the two votes he needs, including adding a requirement that a former prisoner make full restitution of any fines or court costs before rights are restored. Some civil rights groups have complained that this will prevent former prisoners from being able to obtain professional jobs than can help them pay restitution.

Crist said he had to compromise in order to get something passed: ``I want to do the doable. . . . I'm pushing as hard as I can to get as much as I can.''


Crist is likely to have at least one vote against his proposal: In an opinion column running in several newspapers today, including The Miami Herald, fellow Republican McCollum said that restoring civil rights to all former prisoners was ''reckless and irresponsible.'' McCollum questioned Crist's plan, saying it would eliminate waiting periods for all but a handful of criminals.

''The proposal to automatically restore civil rights when leaving prison would restore rights without providing a reasonable period of time to determine if felons are truly rehabilitated or still leading a life of crime,'' McCollum wrote.

McCollum has offered an alternative plan that calls for the state to beef up the number of people doing background checks on those applying for clemency, and requiring the state to act on all requests for civil rights restoration within a year.