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.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. 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
The history of felony disenfranchisement date back to English colonist. It originated as a common law practice referred to as "civil death." The early colonial laws limited the revocation of voting rights to offenses related to voting or violations of moral code, but then post-American Revolution the penalty expanded to encompass all felony offenses. After the Reconstruction period, during the time of Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement laws were crafted to focus on offenses that were considered to be most commonly committed by African-Americans. It was not until a century later, through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, that things began to change. However, states kept felony disenfranchisement laws on the books.
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 Only two states, Maine and Vermont have no restrictions on voting rights and allow individuals to vote in prison. The other 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 sentence.5 In some states, the voting rights of these individuals are automatically restored when their sentence is completed. In other states, the legislatures have chosen to require waiting periods or an application before a person’s voting rights may be restored. Only three states, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa, permanently revoke a person’s right to vote based on a felony conviction. Of those states, Virginia recently acted to extend the opportunity for clemency to those with a felony conviction who meet certain criteria.
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.
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.
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. Since Prison Fellowship's founding, we have been a strong voice in support of the restoration of voting rights for all people who have completed their incarceration. Voter disenfranchisement has a shameful legacy of intentional discrimination against communities of color and people living in poverty. 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.
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 incarcerated people should enjoy the same protections as people voting in the community.
The denial of voting rights to people who have completed their sentence of incarceration has imposed second class citizenship on millions of our family members, church members, and neighbors in America. After someone has completed their sentence of incarceration, 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?" Further, 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.
Prison Fellowship has testified and supported advocacy campaigns to restore voting rights in a variety of states, including Florida's Amendment 4, which restored the right to vote to approximately 1.5 million people in 2018. We ought to celebrate redemption and welcome people back to our communities. That's why Prison Fellowship founded Second Chance Month, a nationwide effort to raise awareness about the barriers people with a criminal record face and to unlock opportunities for returning neighbors to live up to their highest potential.
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.