November 2015

Felony Disenfranchisement: Yet Another Form of Voter Suppression

Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy and the fundamental right of all adult American citizens. Yet, 6 million Americans are banned from participating in the democratic process. Six million Americans – 2.5 percent of our nation’s voting age population – are deprived of this fundamental right through a legal practice of voter suppression known as felony disenfranchisement.

Felony disenfranchisement is the legal term for revoking the right to vote because of a person’s unlawful past. If a person has committed a felonious crime, it is extremely likely that person’s right to vote has been rescinded. What constitutes a felony offense differs from state to state with some states imposing strict penalties even for non-violent acts; e.g., writing a bad check, disorderly conduct, or DUIs.

Felony disenfranchisement is not a federal law, and therefore is a power reserved for each state to enact and enforce. All but two states have enacted some form of felony disenfranchisement, and each law is written and interpreted differently. Because these laws vary state by state, knowing and understanding who is legally eligible to vote is confusing. Many of these laws are intentionally complex, and information on these practices is not easily attainable by the public.

Forty-eight states practice some form of felony disenfranchisement. Twelve states restrict the right to vote to all currently incarcerated persons. Four states disenfranchise those currently incarcerated and released on parole. Nineteen states disenfranchise those currently incarcerated, released on parole and still on probation. Twelve states disenfranchise even those who have completed all terms and conditions of their sentencing. (See map on next page for more information).

Within the 12 states that disenfranchise offenders post sentence, the conditions of restoring voting rights vary greatly. For example, Delaware, Florida, and Virginia require a five-year waiting period before rights are restored – though restoration is subject to the nature of the crime committed. Nebraska requires a two-year waiting period, and Arizona only disenfranchises after a second felonious conviction. 

Many states do not have rules in place for automatic restoration – instead voting rights may only be restored on a case-by-case basis by personally petitioning the state’s governor, a burdensome, complex and time-consuming process with a success rate that varies 1–16 percent state by state. 

Rates of incarceration have been steadily increasing for decades. Today, 2.2 million people are imprisoned. This year, 600,000 of them will be released, and the majority of them will have been forced to forfeit their right to vote. Since 1980, the number of U.S. citizens that have been disenfranchised has increased by 500 percent. 

These are not insignificant numbers. Of the 6 million disenfranchised, only 25 percent of them are currently incarcerated. There are 4.5 million people living and working in communities throughout our country alienated from participating in our democracy. 

Voter suppression laws have become more prevalent in recent years. Seventeen states now require all voters to show a state-issued identification card when casting a ballot. Some states have tightened requirements on absentee ballots and limited early voting. Factor in the millions affected by felony disenfranchisement, and it is not surprising voter turnout rates have been on the decline for 50 years. In fact, 2014 had the lowest turnout in modern history. 

If all adult citizens were afforded equal voting rights and protection under the law, the nature of electoral politics would change. In many elections, the number of disenfranchised in the state is often greater than the margin of victory. Infamously, if the hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Floridians were able to vote in the 2000 presidential election, the winner could have been decidedly different.

A career in construction is a path that many with a blemished record choose because the construction industry typically does not require background checks or ask about a person’s past. As such, our industry and trade may be disproportionately more affected by felony disenfranchisement than others. 

Felony disenfranchisement undermines the open, participatory nature of the democratic process. To extend punishment beyond the confines of prison is to further marginalize and alienate millions of our neighbors from our communities. 

For more information on felony disenfranchisement laws and restoration of voting rights in your state, contact the Ironworkers Political Action League at ipal@iwintl.org.