PRISON FELLOWSHIP'S POSITION
We affirm that people must be held accountable for crime and that their sentence must fit the nature and severity of the harm done. Therefore, after incarceration, any restrictions on the liberty of former prisoners should have a substantial link to public safety. Imposing a life-long penalty with little to no relationship to an offense is both unjust and impractical.
Prison Fellowship believes that the right to vote is a person's primary right of citizenship. Therefore, removing this right as a form of just punishment should be an extraordinary circumstance that is reserved for those who are incarcerated and removed from the community, only after conviction and sentencing. 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.
We believe that accepting racial discrimination in any form, including in the context of voting rights, betrays the teachings of the Gospel and that we as Christians have a unique calling to racial reconciliation. Voter disenfranchisement has a shameful legacy of intentional discrimination against communities of color and people living in poverty.
While Prison Fellowship believes removal of voting rights during incarceration after conviction and sentencing is permissible, we do not oppose policy proposals that enable voting after a person has been sentenced to incarceration. However, in such cases, Prison Fellowship believes that the voting process must be free of interference and coercion and that incarcerated people should enjoy the same protections as those voting in the community.
Prison Fellowship supports automatic restoration of voting rights post-release, ensuring that all people, regardless of economic means and influence, have access to this primary right of citizenship.
Restoring voting rights to our neighbors recognizes the human dignity of formerly incarcerated men and women and the potential that their unique abilities and contributions can offer society.
One in 3 Americans have a criminal record and, as a result, face numerous legal barriers upon returning to their communities. These include more than 4,000 barriers specific to civic participation. 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—sometimes referred to as disenfranchisement.
One in every 50 otherwise eligible adults are denied the right to vote due to a felony conviction.
More than half of the states in America continue to restrict voting rights post-incarceration.
More than 5% of the adult Black American population cannot vote because of disenfranchisement laws.
The United States Constitution protects citizens’ right to vote and prohibits disqualification due to age, gender, and race. Even so, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution reserves the power to restrict a criminally convicted person’s right to vote to the states. There is great variety in how states approach this restriction as far as when it is restricted, for how long, and the process for restoring the right.
Nearly every state restricts a person’s right to vote due to a conviction for a felony. As of 2022, an estimated 4.6 million Americans were denied voting rights because of a felony conviction. That is 1 out of every 50 voting-eligible adults. Only Maine and Vermont place no restrictions on voting rights and allow individuals to vote while incarcerated. Twenty-two states temporarily suspend voting rights while an individual is incarcerated, but have automatic restoration upon release. In the other 26 states, individuals must complete any parole or probation sentence as well, or in some of these states, legislatures have chosen to require waiting periods, applications, or payment of certain fines and fees before a person’s voting rights may be restored. Only Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia permanently revoke a person’s right to vote based on a felony conviction, unless rights are restored through gubernatorial powers.
In states that allow restoration of voting rights, the way a person gets their voting rights restored can be complex. Registering to vote after disenfranchisement generally includes lengthy paperwork filed through state agencies. Individuals may experience unintended waiting periods due to insufficient resources in those agencies, even for automatic restoration. These procedures can operate as a de facto bar to restoration for many, particularly those with limited resources and education. One study found that fewer than 3% of impacted individuals were able to get their rights restored in 11 states with disenfranchisement laws.
Further, research shows disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact people of color. One in 19 voting-aged Black Americans is disenfranchised. Over 5% of the adult Black American population cannot vote because of disenfranchisement laws, compared to 1.5% of the non-Black American population. While data on Latino disenfranchisement is less comprehensive, studies show that Latino persons are disenfranchised at rates greater than the general population. Conservative estimates find that nearly 2% of the voting-eligible Latino population is currently denied voting rights.
THE HISTORY OF FELONY DISENFRANCHISEMENT
Disenfranchisement has historical roots, dating back to ancient Greece and medieval Europe. In America, antebellum laws modeled the English common law practice of “civil death,” whereby convicted persons were stripped of their civil rights. These early colonial laws limited the revocation of voting rights to offenses related to voting or violations of the moral code. After the American Revolution, the penalty expanded to encompass all felony offenses.
Following the Civil War and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, many states crafted disenfranchisement laws focused on offenses considered most often committed by Black Americans, such as burglary, theft, perjury, and arson. Disenfranchisement became a common feature of Jim Crow laws in the 20th century.
States’ voter suppression laws began to change when Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Still, many states kept felony disenfranchisement laws on the books. Felony disenfranchisement laws have since been challenged on equal protection grounds and by application of the Voting Rights Act, although with little success.
America’s disenfranchised population steadily grew over the last century, from 1.17 million in 1976 to 3.34 million in 1996, then 5.85 to 6.11 million between 2010 and 2016. Despite a decline since 2016, the United States still disenfranchises more of its citizens per capita than any other country. Most democratic nations do not disenfranchise people with felony convictions or only do so for offenses directly related to elections.
NOTEWORTHY REFORMS BEING LED BY STATES
Nearly 70% of Americans agree that individuals convicted of felonies should regain their voting rights after serving their sentence. In the past 10 years, many states have taken executive or legislative action to align with that view and addressed voting rights restoration. Since January 2020, policy changes haven taken effect in eight states. This is a continuation of the reforms to voting rights that have been occurring for nearly three decades now. These reforms include simplifying processes to regain the right to vote, addressing the voting rights of those on parole and probation, or granting restoration through gubernatorial powers. As a result, America’s disenfranchised population has declined by nearly 24% since 2016.
Felony Disenfranchisement: Deprived of the right to vote due to a felony conviction
Map and information that show which states have passed policy reforms addressing felony disenfranchisement.