In the United States, more than 4.5 million people are disenfranchised from voting by a criminal conviction. However, the vast majority of people with criminal records are eligible to vote. More than 75% of people with felony convictions and around 90% of people currently in local and county jails are eligible to vote. Misleading media and rumors about the state of voter disenfranchisement laws, as well as the confusing nature of the laws themselves, have led to many people to incorrectly believe they are ineligible to vote or to be unsure of their status. To help answer people's questions about these laws, we've put together this resource, as well as posters for most states which can be found for each state using the dropdown above. Below, you can find a general overview of felony disenfranchisement laws, use the dropdown above to see a detailed description of felony disenfranchisement/voter registration laws and processes in a specific state. We'll be continuing to build out these resources in the coming months, adding easy-to-share images for social media and more data as we get it.
In 2018 Florida passed Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, as a ballot initiative. This amendment re-enfranchised up to 1.5 million people - in 2016 there were upwards of 6 million people disenfranchised from voting in the United States. The disenfranchised population is not evenly distributed among the states. States with harsher laws, particularly those that regularly practice lifelong disenfranchisement or disenfranchisement extended far beyond the length of the sentence of incarceration, account for a disproportionate percentage of the disenfranchised population. In 2016, six states (Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Virginia) disenfranchised more than 7 percent of their adult populations (Kentucky has now also taken major steps to reduce their disenfranchisement rate).
These laws have a disproportionate impact on the voting power of communities of color.
This is by design.
After the civil war and enfranchisement of blacks, felony disenfranchisement laws were expanded as prisons were filled with black and brown bodies. Under the 13th Amendment: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Before the civil war, prisons primarily contained poor white men, but as slavery ended, the practice of convict leasing was implemented in order to replace it. Many freed blacks were once again imprisoned by new laws that harshly criminalized "offenses" such as loitering, breaking curfew, vagrancy, and not carrying proof of employment. These people were then made to work for the profit of individuals yet again. To this day, incarcerated people are used as a free or barely paid labor source, and to this day, people of color are disproportionately incarcerated and criminalized.
The impact of felon disenfranchisement laws has been influenced in recent years by the massive explosion in the size and scope of our carceral systems. Currently, in the United States, we have 25% of the world's prisoners, but only 5% of the world's population. With over 2.3 million people incarcerated, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. Incarceration rates have skyrocketed over the past 40 years, increasing more than 400% since the 1970s. "Tough on crime" policies, alongside new law enforcement strategies that criminalize those living in poverty, such as the War on Drugs, led to a massive increase in our incarcerated population.
The United States sentences people to much longer stays in prison when compared to European nations. The normalization of life sentences has led to a shift in sentence length for those committing even "minor" offenses, to the point that we regularly hear about several year sentences being thrown around for low-level drug offenses and property offenses.
These policies do not keep us safe. Incarceration inadequately responds to economic and personal factors leading to crime - including violent crime. That is, someone who spends several years in prison isn't less likely to commit a new crime when they get out. After the first year or so, they're more likely to commit a new crime upon exiting incarceration. Even when offering rehabilitative services (which many prisons are cutting funding for) prisons don't fix the root causes of crime: poverty and trauma. They inflict more trauma and poverty on people, trapping communities in destructive cycles. We must divest from the idea that police and prisons are primary factors in "public safety." Public safety looks like schools, access to healthcare (mental and physical), and economic security. Public safety looks like healing, not destruction.
In the United States, we incarcerate people for "offenses" that the criminal justice system is in no way qualified to respond to. Addiction is not a criminal issue. Yet we arrest several million people annually for drug offenses, mostly low-level possession. Homelessness is not a criminal issue. Yet we regularly harass and incarcerate people for existing in public spaces (which ends up costing more than literally giving them homes). The United States isn't alone in these responses to "victimless" (or "self-victimizing") crimes - but we have been particularly overzealous in our responses to these issues.
For more information on how we got here and what is being done to end mass incarceration, we recommend:
To learn more about the War on Drugs, a contributing factor to mass incarceration, we recommend:
It is impossible to know precisely how these laws have impacted elections. However, it is ridiculous to say that they have not impacted the manner in which we are governed. Here is what we can say with certainty:
*Their argument for this did not account for the impact of misinformation about felony disenfranchisement laws, but rather the effects of disenfranchisement itself.
**More than 90% of people in jails are eligible to vote, a large portion of whom are held pre-trial. Often the rights of incarcerated populations are forgotten unless we ensure them (more information about Jail-Based Voting is forthcoming, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information).
***A widespread belief is that all felonies are permanently disenfranchising. This is effectively true in a handful of states, but the belief has been perpetuated across the country. Misinformation varies greatly from place to place, and simple laws requiring jails, prisons, and courts to provide accurate information about the voting eligibility of criminalized populations and requiring jails and prisons to ensure eligible incarcerated people have access to the ballot could resolve this issue. Around 15 million people with felony convictions are eligible to vote. If one in three is misinformed about this fact, which is a conservative estimate compared to our experiences, more people are disenfranchised by misinformation than the actual impact of the laws themselves.
Repair Now is working to end voter disenfranchisement. However, we believe that voter disenfranchisement through misinformation is likely more widespread than disenfranchisement itself. Here are a couple ways you can help us fix this: