Can People With Felony Convictions Vote? It's Complicated (and Racist)

Oct 03 2016

Can People With Felony Convictions Vote? It’s Complicated (and Racist)

October 3rd, 2016

Today, the Marshall Project is running a quiz about some of the legally mandated after-effects of a criminal record—those that last way past a sentence has supposedly ended.

In light of the upcoming election, it’s important to understand voting rights for people convicted of crimes. Yet approaches to these rights, like many rights for former prisoners, vary tremendously by state, and are often difficult to parse. They are often rooted in racism.

The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Constitutional Amendments respectively prohibited slavery (except as punishment for crimes) in 1865, granted equal citizenship to freed slaves (1866), and prohibited racial discrimination in voting (1869). But between 1865 and 1900, 19 states passed laws that disenfranchised “criminals,” as a backlash. By 1900, 38 states had some type of criminal voting restriction law.

Today, people with criminal records face a complicated landscape.

In Maine and Vermont, both states that are about 95 percent white (as of 2015 census), people convicted of felonies can vote even while incarcerated.

But in nine states, including Florida, Iowa and Virginia, people who have been convicted of a felony are permanently banned from voting—that is, unless their voting rights are restored directly by the state’s governor or through court action.

In some states, people who have been incarcerated are eligible to apply to regain the right to vote after they’re released. In other states, they’re eligible to apply after their parole or probation ends. In New York, people on probation can be eligible to vote, while people on parole cannot.

And just because people are eligible to apply to regain the right to vote doesn’t mean it’s an easy process. According to the National Convention of State Legislators, that’s in part because of the complexity of laws surrounding the process, poor communication among agencies, and a lack of clear (or any) information provided to people with criminal records themselves.

There’s also administrative chaos. For example, in some states where offenders must apply to parole boards to have their rights restored, there’s a massive backlog of applications…with no imminent plans to address them.

And laws on this issue are also frequently changing. Earlier this year, for example, California passed legislation allowing people in county jails (though not in state or federal prison) to vote while incarcerated.

Disenfranchisement for people with criminal records is a clear legacy of Jim Crow. For example, as discussed in the 2010 Brennan Center report Jim Crow in New York, the disenfranchisement provision in New York’s constitution today is “nearly identical to the provision enacted in 1876 amidst a concerted effort to resist enfranchising black men.” Nearly three-quarters of disenfranchised New Yorkers on parole are African American or Latino.

For a full chart of voting laws by state, see the National Convention of State Legislators website.

And take the Marshall Project’s quiz to see how much you know about voting rights, “ban the box,” and other legally imposed consequences of incarceration.