Voter Suppression Threat: Felony Disenfranchisement

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Felony disenfranchisement in the United States is referred to as denial of voting rights for a person’s conviction of a criminal offense. Basically, this means that in some states, if you are a convicted felon, you may not be able to vote in any election. According to The Sentencing Project, out of the 6.1 million people being disenfranchised based on felony offenses, 2.2 million of them are African American.

Currently only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people with a felony conviction to vote. This is the case whether they are out of prison or still serving time.

Per The Sentencing Project, 16 states and the District of Columbia now allow convicted felons to vote as long as they are not serving their time in prison.  These states are Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Utah. 

Three states restrict citizens from voting if they are either in prison or on parole. Namely, California, Connecticut and New York. After finishing their sentence of prison and parole, these citizens are able to vote again.

Eighteen states have restrictions on citizens who are either in prison, on probation or on parole. These states are Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin. 

Eleven states impose complete restrictions on citizens who are convicted felons. In these states, citizens who are in prison, on parole, on probation or post-sentencing cannot vote in any election. These states are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming. 

According to The Sentencing Project, “77 percent of disenfranchised voters live in their communities, either under probation or parole supervision or having completed their sentence.” These voters are now back in their communities but they don’t receive the same rights as those without prior convictions.

Felony disenfranchisement has very shaky roots dating all the way back to 1901 when Alabama attempted to endorse white supremacy in the state by doing it legally in the form of a new voting law. The Marshall Project states that, “the resulting state constitution declared persons ‘convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude’ could not vote without having their rights restored.” Alabama still has this law in place today. 

Olivia Hunt is a political science major and legal studies minor at Rutgers University. Hunt has been studying laws like felony disenfranchisement in many of her classes.

Hunt said, “I think voting is a right. According to the 14th amendment, it grants citizens voting rights among other things. Felony disenfranchisement takes that right away.” 

When asked if ex-felons should regain their right to vote Hunt said, “They did their time. There is no need for a double punishment. In the U.S. we have a high recidivism rate, meaning a high percentage of people end up back in prison once they’re released. Many times, ex-felons are unable to adapt back into society. They’re unable to find work because of their past history along with other struggles. They aren’t given a fair chance …again, after doing their time in prison. If you strip someone of their right to vote, it’s dehumanizing. There’s plenty of individuals who want to better themselves after mistakes they’ve made and our society makes it much more difficult.” 

The Crime Report states that, “Five out of every six state prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years after their release, according to a vast new federal study that takes a granular long view at American recidivism patterns.” This shows that a lot of ex-felons go back to prison after being released. It can be hard to adjust to life after prison and one thing that could help is giving them their voting rights back.

Kara Gotsch, Director of Strategic Initiatives for the Sentencing Project, said, “As mass incarceration in this country becomes more prominent, the impact of felony disenfranchisement law increased significantly.”

“Felony disenfranchisement takes away the voice of the people affected,” according to Gotsch. “They can’t vote for the president, but they also can’t vote for small things in their community like school board.” These individuals have paid their dues but still can’t vote on something that can impact their lives so greatly whether that be taxes, school board voting or even city council. 

As stated before, Florida is a state that imposes complete restrictions on people with felony convictions. These laws were in place since November 5, 1968 until 2016 when the people of Florida voted to give these individuals their rights back. Florida has made efforts in the past to give these rights back to people. In 2010, Governor Charlie Christ restored the voting rights of 155,315 people, per The Disenfranchisement of Ex-felons in Florida: a Brief history. Christ left office in 2011 and then Governor Rick Scott took over. Since taking over as governor, Scott has only restored voting rights to 2,488 people. 

Florida, who in the past did not allow anyone with a felony conviction to vote, has temporarily put a hold on the law that limits voting rights. The Sentencing Project says, “A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction against SB 7066, a new state law that requires the payment of all court-ordered restitution, fines and fees before people with felony convictions are allowed to vote.” This means that for the time being, anyone convicted of a felony who wishes to vote again will have to pay the court whatever amount of money they request. This is movement in the right direction but Florida currently does not have any type of system to prove whether someone has paid their financial obligation or even how much that person owes. 

Governor Kim Reynolds of Iowa announced that she will continue to advocate for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people who have completed their felony sentences. Her recent proposal passed the Iowa state house rather easily but fell short of passing because some senators had some concern that these felons would have to give restitution to the victims of the crimes that they had committed. Also, that some felons are convicted of violent crimes and the senators were concerned about giving them the power that comes with being able to vote.

“There are 23 states since 1997 that have passed reforms to expand voting eligibility,” Gotsch said. 

According to The Sentencing Project, “Seven states either repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws. Six states expanded voting rights to some or all persons under community supervision. Seventeen states eased the restoration process for persons seeking to have their right to vote restored after completing sentences.” These states are Alabama, Delaware, California, Connecticut, florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraksa, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington and Wyoming. In total these states have impacted the lives of 1,366,300 people with their reforms.

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 

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