Restoring Felon Voting Rights, A National Trend
An article from The Vera Institute of Justice says an increasing number of states are working to pass legislation to restore felon voting rights. Florida alone could restore voting rights for over one million people in the coming November election.
As of late January 2018, seven states including Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey and Virginia had introduced bills to restore felon voting rights according to the Brennan Center of Justice, as reported by The Vera Institute of Justice.
Florida to vote on The Voting Restoration Amendment in November 2018.
Advocates in Florida, one of the most restrictive states for felon voting rights, solicited enough signatures to put The Voting Restoration Amendment on the ballot in November. Florida is one of four states along with Kentucky, Tennessee and Iowa that have such strict voting laws that anyone with a felony conviction is essentially barred from voting for life, unless they seek clemency.
The Voting Restoration Amendment would automatically restore voting rights to citizens in Florida convicted of felonies who have completed their prison sentence, parole, and probation. Persons convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses would be excluded.
Around 1.7 million people are prohibited from voting in Florida due to felony convictions, a number which represents approximately ten percent of the Florida population and almost a quarter of the black population in Florida.
The Voting Restoration Amendment needs 60 percent of the vote in November to pass and become state-wide law. Florida is a crucial swing state in national elections and restoring the right to vote to ten percent of the state’s population and one in four black persons could reshape national elections as well as state level elections.
Felon voting rights in the national landscape.
Approximately 2.5% of Americans or 6.1 million voters nation-wide are disenfranchised due to past felony convictions.
As Vera reported, a 2017 report from The League of Women Voters of Kentucky found that due to the state’s lifetime ban on felon voting rights more than 300,000 residents were disenfranchised. The data represented an increase of 68 percent since 2006 and includes more than a quarter of the state’s black population, the highest such rate in the nation.
Disenfranchisement and restrictions placed on felon voting rights do not fall equally on all Americans; they have a significant disproportionate impact on black people who are overrepresented in the prison system. According to estimates, 1 in 13 black Americans do not have the right to vote due to past felony convictions which is four times the rate of other Americans.
Restrictions on felon voting rights stem from Reconstruction Era racism.
The disproportionate representation of black people in the prison system has its roots in systematic racism which dates back to the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, according to Vera. By the end of the Civil War, many states already had disenfranchisement laws in place.
Additionally, as Vera reported, after the passing of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments which banned slavery and gave black men the right to vote states passed a flood of new or amended bans. These were in addition to the already established voting restrictions such as literacy requirements and poll taxes.
The Vera article referred to a report by The Sentencing Project which claimed that in the Reconstruction Era some states tailored their laws specifically to apply to crimes thought to be committed more often by black people—and excluded crimes thought to be committed more often by white people. States with a larger black population also tended to pass stricter voting restrictions.
Legacy of post-Civil War disenfranchisement lives on today.
Though black people only represent 13 percent of the American population, an estimated 38 percent of all Americans who have been stripped of their voting rights are black. Poll taxes and literacy tests were abolished after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, yet activists argue the historical practice of the disenfranchisement of minorities lives on today, with the prohibition of felon voting rights being one example.
Felon voting rights looking forward.
States, both red and blue are increasingly restoring the vote for formerly incarcerated persons. There is a trend towards greater enfranchisement regardless of the state’s traditional political leanings. As Vera reported:
In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe individually restored the rights of around 13,000 formerly incarcerated people—with the goal of restoring thousands more before the end of his term. And, earlier this year, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a law restoring voting rights for thousands of people. Across the country, a total of 49 pieces of legislation were introduced in 16 states during last year’s legislative session to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who have served their sentences.
Returning the vote to formerly incarcerated persons who have done their time and paid their debt to society could help reduce the recidivism rate and help people reintegrate back into the American society. It is one step towards creating a more representative American democracy.