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Felony Disenfranchisement

It has been common practice in the United States to make felons ineligible to vote, in some cases permanently. Over the last few decades, the general trend has been toward reinstating the right to vote at some point, although this is a state-by-state policy choice.
People Impacted
$ 156B
Potential Funding
I have this challenge
the problem
Nature and Context

The right to vote is fundamental to our nation’s democracy and should be guaranteed to every citizen. Preventing ex-felons from voting contributes to the racial divide polarizing our country. More than two million African-Americans (almost 8 percent of black adults) are prevented from voting because of felony convictions, compared to just under 2 percent of non-African-American citizens (NSCS).

Symptoms and Causes

The United States remains one of the world’s strictest nations when it comes to denying the right to vote to citizens convicted of crimes. An estimated 6.1 million Americans are forbidden to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement,” or laws restricting voting rights for those convicted of felony-level crimes (Sentencing Project).

In all cases, 'automatic restoration' does not mean that voter registration is automatic. Typically prison officials automatically inform election officials that an individual's rights have been restored. The person is then responsible for re-registering through normal processes. Some states, California is one example, require that voter registration information be provided to formerly incarcerated people (NCSL):

  • In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. 

  • In 16 states and the District of Columbia, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release.

  • In 21 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well. 

  • In 11 states felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored.

the impact
Negative Effects

Minority Americans are Underrepresented in the Voting Booths, Widening the Racial Divide

Research and experience demonstrate that the criminal justice system nationwide disproportionately entraps Black residents and subjects them to more severe outcomes at every stage of the process. Black Americans are more likely to be aggressively policed, prosecuted, and to receive harsher sentences than whites. These disparate outcomes go beyond what can be accounted for by racial disparities in criminal offending. This means, until we restore voting rights to the disenfranchised, minority groups will be underrepresented in the voting booths (Sentencing Project).

Not Restoring the Right to Vote Bars People from Fully Reforming

When people finish their sentences and return to society, we let them have their right to pursue a life they want back. That means they can get married, have children, own property, and obtain a driver’s license. You can buy alcohol if you want, although guns are usually off-limits. You don’t lose your freedom of religion or abandon the right against self-incrimination. If we don’t trust people with a felony to make an appropriate decision at the ballot box, then we’re communicating to people that we think they cannot change their lives (ConnectUS).

Automatic Restoration Doesn’t Mean Voter Registration Occurs
The history of disenfranchisement in the United States has created societal “knowledge” that a felony conviction causes someone to lose their right to vote. That isn’t the case in every state, because there are 16 where you receive automatic restoration upon release. Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated felons to vote. When you receive that right back, the restoration process doesn’t mean that you are automatically registered to cast a ballot in the next election.

Individuals are responsible for re-registering themselves to vote through the regular process once they have the right to do so. Some states, such as California, try to avoid this disadvantage by requiring registration information to be given to people formerly incarcerated. When 150,000 ex-felons had their voting rights restored in Florida between 2007-2011, only 21% of then registered and voted (ConnectUS).

Success Metrics

Standardize Disenfranchisement Laws from State to State and Separate State Voting Eligibility from Federal Eligibility

As a result of the considerable variation among the states, disenfranchisement laws form a national “crazyquilt.”Within the federal structure of the U.S. it may be appropriate that each state determine voting qualifications for local and state offices. But state voting laws also govern eligibility to vote in federal elections. Exercise of the right to vote for national representatives is thus subject to the arbitrary accidents of geography. In Massachusetts, a convicted burglar may vote in national elections while he is in prison, while in Indiana he cannot. A person convicted of theft in New Jersey automatically regains the right to vote after release from prison, while in New Mexico such an offender is denied the vote for the rest of her life unless she can secure a pardon from the governor. In some states an offender who commits a felony and receives probation can vote, while in other states an offender guilty of the same crime who receives probation cannot (Sentencing Project).

Require Voter Registration Info Be Administered in States Where Franchising Occurs at the End of Prison Sentence

Even though many states allow felons to vote after they have completed their sentence, many fail to do so because lack of registration knowledge. Additionally, many states require pardons from governors or other state officials, which can be a complicated and often unrealistic process. Providing resources on how best to obtain the pardon, or eliminating this practice all together should be mandatory.

who benefits from solving this problem
Organization Types
  • US Government

  • Formerly Incarcerated Americans

  • US Citizens

  • Felons

  • Parolees

  • Government Officials

Ideas Description

We Need to Challenge Outdated Laws that were Created for Explicitly Racist Reasons in the First Place

The racial disparities caused by felony disenfranchisement laws are not a coincidence. Many felony disenfranchisement laws were revised in the years following the Civil War for the specific purpose of limiting the political power of newly-freed Black people. Indeed, many state legislatures tailored their felony disenfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those offenses disproportionately prosecuted against Black people, or thought to be committed most frequently by Black people (Bloomberg). empowers individuals and organizations to learn, use, and shape the law. Unlike other advocacy platforms, we give users access to legal resources and experts to transform petitions into campaigns or legal actions that produce real change. We also offer a community forum where users can collaborate and share ideas on creating social impact.

Reduce the Number of People Imprisoned to Begin With

In the land of the free, it’s ironic that we have the highest incarceration rates in the world.The criminal justice system is heavily impacted by the bias of police mentality, as well as outdated judicial precedents.  It is largely driven by racial disparities, which directly obstruct and deconstruct our minority communities. The United States makes up 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s prisoners (NAACP).

While a large number of arrests come from racial bias and over-policing, many convictions come from technical violations that show a lack of compliance due to a complicated pre-trial process. Uptrust seeks to assist people to avoid technical violations who are in the pre-trial process and at risk to miss their first court date. Removing barriers by providing customized text message reminders, free transportation to court, and free childcare for parents attending court, Uptrust aims to make compliance easy.

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