Proponents have argued that persons who commit felonies have 'broken' the social contract, and have thereby given up their right to participate in a civil society. Some argue that felons have shown poor judgment, and that they should therefore not have a voice in the political decision-making process. Opponents have argued that such disfranchisement restricts and conflicts with principles of universal suffrage. It can affect civic and communal participation in general. Opponents argue that felony disenfranchisement can create political incentives to skew criminal law in favor of disproportionately targeting groups who are political opponents of those who hold power.
The United States is among the most punitive nations in the world when it comes to denying the vote to those who have been convicted of a felony offense.
In the U.S., the Supreme Court, by its ruling in the 1974 case of Richardson v. Ramirez, has interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment section 2 as permitting the states to disenfranchise convicted criminals. It is up to the states to decide which crimes could be grounds for disenfranchisement, and they are not formally bound to restrict this to felonies; however, in most cases, they do. Felons who have completed their sentences are allowed to vote in most U.S. states. Between 1996 and 2008 twenty-eight states changed their laws on felon voting rights, mostly to restore rights or to simplify the process of restoration. Since 2008 state laws have continued to shift, both curtailing and restoring voter rights, sometimes over short periods of time within the same state.
In several Southern states, felony disenfranchisement was implemented as part of a strategy to bar blacks from voting. Conjoint with felony disenfranchisement, these Southern states implemented Black Codes which established severe penalties for petty crimes and were used to target black Americans.
As of 2008 over 5.3 million people in the United States were denied the right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement. In the national elections in 2012, the various state felony disenfranchisement laws together blocked an estimated 5.85 million felons from voting, up from 1.2 million in 1976. This comprised 2.5% of the potential voters in general. The state with the highest number of disenfranchised voters was Florida, with 1.5 million disenfranchised.
In 2002, Representative Maxine Waters (D, CA) introduced H.R.2830, the Voting Restoration Act, to congress.
In the years 1997 to 2008, there was a trend to lift the disenfranchisement restrictions, or simplify the procedures for applying for the restoration of civil rights for persons who had fulfilled their punishments for felonies. As a result, in 2008 more than a half million people had the right to vote who would have been disenfranchised under the older rules. Since then, more severe disenfranchisement rules have been passed in several states.
In 2007, Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist pushed to make it easier for most convicted felons to regain their voting rights reasonably quickly after serving their sentences and probation terms. In March 2011, however, Republican Governor Rick Scott reversed the 2007 reforms. Felons were not able to apply to the court for restoration of voting rights until seven years after completion of sentence, probation and parole. On November 6, 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4, an amendment to the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their sentences. Lifetime bans still apply for those convicted of either murder or sexual offenses.
In Nevada in 2019, the legislature introduced AB 431 which was passed and signed into law, taking effect on July 1, 2019 which restored the right to vote for felons who were no longer serving a
prison sentence in the state of Nevada.
In Iowa in July 2005, Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring the right to vote for all persons who had completed supervision. On October 31, 2005, Iowa's Supreme Court upheld mass re-enfranchisement of convicted felons. But, on his inauguration day, January 14, 2011, Republican Governor Terry Branstad reversed Vilsack's executive order, disenfranchising thousands of people.
The Virginia legislature in 2017 debated relaxation of the state's policy that restoration of voting rights requires an individual act by the governor.
Nine other states disenfranchise felons for various lengths of time following their conviction. Except for Maine and Vermont every state prohibits felons from voting while in prison.
As of January 2019[update], Iowa and Kentucky are the only two states with lifetime voting bans for felons, regardless of the crime committed.
Unlike most laws that burden the right of citizens to vote based on some form of social status, felony disenfranchisement laws have been held to be constitutional. In Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of felon disenfranchisement statutes, finding that the practice did not deny equal protection to disenfranchised voters. The Court looked to Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which proclaims that States in which adult male citizens are denied the right to vote for any reason other than "participation in rebellion, or other crime" will suffer a reduction in the basis of their representation in Congress. Based on this language, the Court found that this amounted to an "affirmative sanction" of the practice of felon disenfranchisement, and the 14th Amendment could not prohibit in one section that which is expressly authorized in another.
But, critics[who?] of the practice argue that Section 2 of the 14th Amendment allows, but does not represent an endorsement of, felony disenfranchisement statutes as constitutional in light of the equal protection clause and is limited only to the issue of reduced representation. The Court ruled in Hunter v. Underwood 471 U.S. 222, 232 (1985) that a state's crime disenfranchisement provision will violate Equal Protection if it can be demonstrated that the provision, as enacted, had "both [an] impermissible racial motivation and racially discriminatory impact." (The law in question also disenfranchised people convicted of vagrancy, adultery, and any misdemeanor "involving moral turpitude"; the test case involved two individuals who faced disenfranchisement for presenting invalid checks, which the state authorities had found to be morally turpid behavior.) A felony disenfranchisement law, which on its face is indiscriminate in nature, cannot be invalidated by the Supreme Court unless its enforcement is proven to racially discriminate and to have been enacted with racially discriminatory animus.
Restoration of voting rights for people who are ex-offenders varies across the United States. Primary classification of voting rights include:
Maine and Vermont are the only states with unrestricted voting rights for people who are felons. Both states allow the person to vote during incarceration, via absentee ballot and after terms of conviction end.
In February 2016 the Maryland General Assembly restored the right to vote for more than 40,000 released felons, overriding a veto by Governor Larry Hogan. Maryland's Senate approved the bill on a 29-18 vote, while the state House of Delegates voted 85-56 in favor of it on January 20. Convicted felons under parole or probation had their right to vote restored. The law went into effect in late March, one month before the state's April 26 primaries.
Eight states have laws that relate disenfranchisement to the detail of the crime. These laws restore voting rights to some offenders on the completion of incarceration, parole, and probation. Other offenders must make an individual petition that could be denied.
Alabama – A person convicted of a felony loses the ability to vote if the felony involves moral turpitude. Prior to 2017, the state Attorney General and courts have decided this for individual crimes; however, in 2017, moral turpitude was defined by House Bill 282 of 2017, signed into law by Kay Ivey on May 24, to constitute 47 specific offenses. If a convicted person loses the ability to vote based on having committed a defined act of moral turpitude, he can petition to have it restored by a pardon or by a certificate of eligibility; if the loss of elective franchise was based on a crime not under moral turpitude, eligibility to vote is automatically restored once all sentence conditions have been satisfied. Prior to 2017, a person convicted of a number of crimes having to do with sexual assault or abuse, including sodomy, was ineligible to receive a certificate of eligibility; today, only impeachment and treason remain ineligible for a certificate of eligibility.
Arizona – Rights are restored to first-time felony offenders. Others must petition.
Delaware – The following crimes require a pardon: murder or manslaughter (except vehicular homicide), an offense against public administration involving bribery or improper influence or abuse of office anywhere in the US, or a felony sexual offense (anywhere in the USA). All other convicted felons regain the right to vote after completion of the full sentence.
Florida – A convicted person permanently loses suffrage if their crime was murder or any sexual offense. In January 2019, the lifetime voting ban was lifted for those convicted of lesser crimes upon completion of sentence, including prison, parole, and probation.
Mississippi – A convicted person loses suffrage for numerous crimes identified in the state constitution, Section 241 (see note). The list is given below. Suffrage can be restored to an individual by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature. The crimes that disqualify a person from voting are given in Section 241 of the state constitution as: murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy.
Nebraska – A convicted person permanently loses suffrage if they are convicted of treason; voting rights for all other offenders are restored two years after completion of incarceration, parole, or probation.
Tennessee – A person who is convicted of certain felonies may not regain voting rights except through pardon. These include: murder, rape, treason, and voting fraud. For a person convicted of a lesser felony, disenfranchisement ends after terms of incarceration, completion of parole, and completion of probation. In addition, the person must pay "Any court order restitution paid; current in the payment of any child support obligations; and/or Any court ordered court costs paid". The ex-offender must either obtain a court order restoring their right to vote or complete the certificate of restoration of voting rights.
Wyoming – Since July 1, 2017, non-violent felons have had their suffrage restored upon completion of their sentence including parole and probation. Non-violent felons who completed their sentence before January 1, 2010 or those convinced out of state must submit a written request to the department of corrections who will determine if their sentence was completed before restoring their voting rights.
Individual petitions required
Three states require individual petition to the court for restoration of voting after all offenses.
Kentucky – Only the governor can reinstate Civil Rights. The ex-offender must complete "Application for Restoration of Civil Rights". The governor has discretion to restore voting rights. Every year since 2007, the Kentucky House of Representatives has passed a bill that would amend the state constitution to restore voting rights to some non-violent offenders, but as of 2016[update], the bill has not passed the state Senate.
Virginia – Only the governor can reinstate civil rights. In 2016, Governor Terry McAuliffe restored rights to "individuals who have been convicted of a felony and are no longer incarcerated or under active supervision . . . In addition to confirming completion of incarceration and supervised release, the Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia considers factors such as active warrants, pre-trial hold, and other concerns that may be flagged by law enforcement. . . . The Governor will review SOC's analysis of each individual's record and will make the final decision on proposed candidates for restoration of rights."
^ abBowers, Melanie M; Preuhs, Robert R (September 2009). "Collateral Consequences of a Collateral Penalty: The Negative Effect of Felon Disenfranchisement Laws on the Political Participation of Nonfelons". Social Science Quarterly. 90 (3): 722–743. doi:10.1111/j.1540-6237.2009.00640.x.
^Siegel, Jonah A. (January 1, 2011). "Felon Disenfranchisement and the Fight for Universal Suffrage". Social Work. 56 (1): 89–91. doi:10.1093/sw/56.1.89.
^Eli L. Levine, "Does the Social Contract Justify Felony Disenfranchisement?", 1 Wash. U. Jur. Rev. 193 (2009).
^Goodnough, Abby (6 April 2007). "In a Break From the Past, Florida Will Let Felons Vote". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 August 2015. Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded Florida's clemency board Thursday to let most felons easily regain their voting rights after prison, saying it was time to leave the "offensive minority" of states that uniformly deny ex-offenders such rights.
Bowers M, Preuhs R. Collateral Consequences of a Collateral Penalty: The Negative Effect of Felon Disenfranchisement Laws on the Political Participation of Nonfelons. Social Science Quarterly (Blackwell Publishing Limited) [serial online]. September 2009;90(3):722–743.
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