Voting is fundamental in a democratic society; it provides citizens with the opportunity to make their voices heard and participate in their government. However, there are currently more Americans barred from voting due to past felony convictions than the populations of North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming combined. The laws that prevent 3.1 million citizens who have completed their sentences from voting are outdated, irresponsible, and unjust. They fundamentally contradict ideas of redemption and second chances. Individuals who served their time and paid their so-called debt to society should not be relegated to permanent second-class citizenship. These Americans deserve the opportunity to fully participate in society.
Created during the Jim Crow era, voter disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect low-income people and people of color. Laws preventing individuals with criminal records from voting became significant barriers at the end of the Civil War and into Reconstruction. During this period, state legislatures across the South enacted and expanded laws in order to systematically criminalize and disenfranchise African American communities. Enacted to preserve racial hierarchies, these laws—combined with poll taxes and literacy tests—ensured that virtually all African Americans living in the South would be denied the right to vote.
More than a century later, these policies continue to disproportionately affect communities of color. Today, African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white people—much of which can be attributed not to African Americans’ criminality but to America’s discriminatory criminal justice policies that create disparate outcomes. This biased criminal justice system—combined with the fact that many states still prevent individuals with felony convictions from voting—means that African Americans of voting age remain four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the U.S. adult population. In some states, such as Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than 1 in 5 African American adults cannot vote because of a past felony conviction.
Disenfranchisement, like other collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, creates barriers for Americans trying to successfully re-enter their communities after serving their sentence. Similar to policies that provide justice-involved people access to housing, education, and employment opportunities, civic participation has been linked to lower rates of recidivism. One study found that “voting appears to be part of a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to desistance from crime.” Twenty-four states have recognized this reality and reformed their voting policies to expand voter eligibility among those with felony convictions. However, 13 states still have exceedingly strict policies that either discourage or completely bar their residents with records from voting.
Of these states, Virginia remains among the most restrictive in its disenfranchisement laws. In 1901, Virginia rewrote its constitution in order to “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this state in less than five years.” While many of Virginia’s Jim Crow-era policies were eliminated over time, strict laws preventing individuals with criminal records from voting remain. The state also continues to over-criminalize and incarcerate people of color. While African Americans make up only 20 percent of the state’s general population, they constitute almost 60 percent of its jail and prison population. As a result, 1 in 4 otherwise-eligible African American men could not vote in the 2016 presidential election.
In recent years, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has made the restoration of citizens’ rights a major policy priority. In 2015, he issued an executive order restoring the rights of more than 200,000 disenfranchised citizens. After a legal challenge prevented his executive order from going into effect, Gov. McAuliffe announced that he would issue restoration orders on an individual basis until all 200,000 citizens were accounted for. By April 2017, Gov. McAuliffe had restored the voting rights of more than 156,000 citizens.
Like Virginia, Florida severely restricts individuals with criminal records from voting and has the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country. Between 2010 and 2016, the number of disenfranchised voters in Florida skyrocketed from 150,000 to more than 1.6 million. Owing to this draconian policy, nearly 1 in 3 otherwise-eligible African American men cannot vote. Florida’s onerous rights restoration rules have spurred hundreds of thousands of Florida residents to fight back against this injustice.
Voting rights restoration is a major civil rights issue that affects more than 3.1 million Americans. Felony disenfranchisement policies provide unnecessary obstacles to re-entry and bolster a system that continuously oppresses people of color. Through thoughtful state leadership and local grassroots movements, the United States can right an historic wrong, improve civic participation, and take essential steps toward a more just and equitable society.
Estefania Hernandez is an intern for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress.