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 ]  

Nebraska in the Lead

Published August 29th 2005 in The New York Times
The United States stands virtually alone among democracies in having laws that continue to disenfranchise former prisoners even after they have paid their debts to society and finished parole or probation. A vast majority of the nearly five million citizens who were barred from voting in the last presidential election would have been free to vote in Australia, Britain, France and Canada.

Like so much of what ails America, laws that strip felons of the right to vote are rooted in race. The South enacted these restrictions during the late 19th and early 20th century as part of a sweeping effort to limit black political power. This ugly legacy is painfully evident in statistics showing that black people account for about 40 percent of disenfranchisement cases and only about 12 percent of the population. Indeed, in the half-dozen states that have the strictest postprison sanctions, an astounding one in four black men have permanently lost the right to vote.

But the argument that felons should be permanently cast out of the body politic is losing its grip in many Northern and Midwestern states where Democrats and Republicans have proved equally willing to revisit and relax disenfranchisement laws.

In Iowa, the governor recently signed an executive order restoring voting rights to felons who complete their sentences. In Nebraska, the Legislature voted to replace a voting ban for convicted felons with a system that automatically restores their rights after they complete their sentences and pass through a two-year waiting period.

The Nebraska case is all the more interesting because the law was embraced by conservative Republican legislators who helped override the governor's veto. An emotional high point in the debate came when State Senator Lowen Kruse, a retired pastor, told his colleagues about a neighbor who had been out of jail 10 years and had become a family man with a good job - "just the kind of person you want within your community." The man, he said, deserved to have his vote automatically returned instead of being forced to beg a board of pardons to restore his rights. "I would rather keep my dignity," Senator Kruse said, "and I would much rather that we allow him to keep his dignity and help him to move on."