Those with criminal records may face a significant amount of difficulty exercising civic duties. These may include the right to serve on a federal jury, the right to hold federal or state office or employment, or even the right to vote.1 The right of a United States citizen to vote in elections is protected by the United States Constitution, which prohibits voter disenfranchisement for reasons such as age, gender, and race.2 However, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution preserves for the states the full power to restrict an individual’s right to vote due to a criminal conviction.3
There is great variety in how states approach restricting voting rights based on criminal history. However, nearly every state restricts a person’s right to vote due to conviction for a felony crime.4 Thirty-eight states, along with the District of Columbia, temporarily suspend the right to vote for those convicted of a felony crime during the period of their incarceration.5 Generally, the voting rights of these individuals are automatically restored when their sentence is completed.6 In other states, the legislatures have chosen to require waiting periods or an application before a person’s voting rights may be restored.7 Only three states, Florida, Virginia, and Iowa, permanently revoke a person’s right to vote based on a felony conviction.8 Of those states, Virginia and Florida recently acted to extend the opportunity for clemency to those with a felony conviction who meet certain criteria.9
In states that allow restoration of voting rights, the process by which a person has their voting rights restored can be complex. The procedure of registering to vote after disenfranchisement generally includes lengthy paperwork to be correctly filed through state agencies, sometimes including unintended waiting periods even for automatic restoration as a result of insufficient resources in state agencies.10
In the past two decades, several states have taken legislative action to address the voting rights of those who carry a felony record. These reforms include streamlining and simplifying processes to regain the right to vote after certain standards have been met, as well as addressing the voting rights of those on probation.11
Restoration of voting rights is just one of the many collateral consequences preventing the 65 million Americans with a criminal record from achieving closure. Even after “paying their debt to society,” these men and women continue to face the “second prison,” systematic and often life-long barriers to second chance opportunities. After someone has completed their traditional sentence, Prison Fellowship believes only restrictions to personal liberty that have a demonstrated and substantial link to protecting public safety should be permissible. Even in these limited cases, the restrictions should be anticipated at the time of sentencing as part of the defendant’s proportional punishment and notification of all such consequences should be given to the defendant during the trial process.
Preventing people with criminal history from restoring their voting rights after being released from prison does not fall within this public safety exception. As our founder the late Chuck Colson put it in 2012, “[O]nce they demonstrate responsible behavior, what possible justification is there, beyond scoring political points during an election, for stripping them of their civil rights for the rest of their lives?” Arbitrary perpetual punishment, including the denial of voting rights to people who have paid their debt, has undermined the American value of self-sufficiency and imposed second class citizenship on millions of our family members, church members, and neighbors.
We ought to celebrate redemption and allow people to give back to their communities at their highest potential. That’s why Prison Fellowship launched our Second Prison Project campaign to raise awareness about the barriers people face after leaving prison, including the loss of voting rights, and to fight the culture stigma that comes with a criminal record. Prison Fellowship has testified and supported advocacy campaigns in several states that have embraced voting restoration reforms in the past decade and applauds this growing trend.
1 DEP’T OF JUSTICE, Federal Sentencing Collateral Consequences Upon Conviction, 3 (Nov. 2000).
2 U.S. Const. art. I, ' 2, cl. 1; art. I, ' 4; art. II, ' 1, cl. 2; amend. XVII.
3 U.S. Const. amend. XIV, ' 2. See generally Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974).
4 Felon Voting Rights, NCSL.org, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx (last visited March 24, 2016).
9 Sec. of the Commonwealth, Restoration of Rights, Virginia.Gov (last visited Mar. 29, 2016), https://commonwealth.virginia.gov/judicial-system/restoration-of-rights/; Florida Commission on Offender Review, Clemency, https://www.fcor.state.fl.us/clemencyOverview.shtml (last visited March 29, 2016).