Give convicted felons the right to vote

December 27, 2019 • 11:00 am

In most states of the Union, convicted felons have their right to vote abridged in one way or another. (In 1974 the Supreme Court affirmed that the voting rights of convicted felons was a matter for states to decide.) The figure below shows the restrictions in place at present (only Maine and Vermons allow convicted felons to vote freely—even in prison). In many states you can regain your voting status after you’re out of jail, but often it’s not easy, and you have to wait until you’re off probation and through with your parole.

Here’s a summary of the situation from

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. 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. 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.

This removal of voting rights in the U.S. is called “felony disenfranchisement”. Although only Maine and Vermont allow imprisoned people to vote regardless of their crime, that is the standard practice in many European countries, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Ukraine.

I see no rationale for disenfranchisement of anyone convicted of a crime, however horrible or regardless of whether they’re in prison. The easiest decision is for the three states that remove your right to vote for a lifetime if you’re a convicted felon—even after release. But if you’ve “paid your debt to society,” as they say, why should you be deprived of civil rights, including the important right to determine who governs you? (Some states also restrict your ability to be on a jury.) Or, if you’re on probation or parole, should you really not be able to vote? One might say that you’re still under legal sanction, but if you can hold a job, and you’re still a citizen, why shouldn’t you be able to vote? After all, you still must live under the laws, you’re in a democracy, and on what grounds are you to be deprived of choosing those responsible for making laws?

And, for that matter, why shouldn’t you be able to vote while in prison? You are still an American citizen (unless you’re an imprisoned foreign national), and voting is a civil right for Americans.

Depriving prisoners, convicts, or parolees of that right serves no function I can see: it’s not a deterrent, it doesn’t help reform the convict (who, after all, reforms so they can get to vote?), and it doesn’t further sequester them away from the rest of society. It seems to me, then, that deprivation of voting is purely retributive punishment, and serves no societal function nor helps the convicted in any way. It is a way of injuring somebody for something they couldn’t help. As a pure determinist, I still see that sequestration, reformation, and deterrence are valid reasons to punish people, often by incarcerating them, but I see no justification for retribution in a humane and rational society.


71 thoughts on “Give convicted felons the right to vote

  1. John Oliver made a piece on this : Felony Disenfranchisement: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

    … careful if viewing, there is foul language.

    I wonder if sentences will become more fierce if voting rights are in fact restored for people who served their time.

  2. I concur with you on this. How committing a crime should remove your voting ability is beyond me. We seem to have no trouble with having a corrupt, unindicted co-conspirator president.

    1. I guess the principle is that criminals, who have proved themselves to be rejecting society’s rules, should not be trusted with voting for those who make the rules.

      Thus, one would not want convicted mafia felons to vote on who is in charge of the police.

      1. Of course we all vote for lots of people who have nothing to do with making the rules (laws). That would include the police.

    2. Not to mention corrupt judges who adjudicate the trials and frequently give the condemned harsh sentences based on their troglodyte prejudices. In the present right-wing zeitgeist, especially in the courts, state and federal, I fear the dark indigo color of the map will increase and the federal government just might step in to enact disenfranchisement statutes. Perhaps I’m horribilizing, but anything is possible these days.

  3. One motive for making it difficult for felons to vote is that it reflects a highly successful election strategy. It has been the policy of one party to disenfranchise as many voters as possible (aimed at particular groups, naturally). In addition to gerrymandering and other manipulations, it’s how they maintain their grip on power. Felons are society’s bogey-men (and women); it’s easy to treat them badly and this issues plays right into their election strategy.

    1. As far as your comment on gerrymandering goes, my brother is in the state legislature of my home state and member of the majority party there. I questioned him about some oddly shaped districts. His answer was that his party is very aware and concerned about accusations of gerrymandering and therefore, virtually all redistricting happens at the request of the minority party. The reason for the vast majority of requests is that the requesting legislator wants some neighborhood to be in their district so that the neighborhood will have a voice in government they otherwise would not have.
      Gerrymandering rarely gets investigated unless there is a complaint from a party in a given state. Since the minority party is essentially given exactly what they ask for regarding district lines, they have no reason to complain.

      1. Not sure in which state your brother is a legislator, but in most states, the redistricting power is used ruthlessly to crack-and-pack districts to ensure that the party in power remains so, even when it receives a minority of the vote. Just as the people of Wisconsin or North Carolina or Maryland or any number of other states where gerrymandering has been so used.

        And, at the end of the last term, SCOTUS gave this practice the green light in the case Rucho v. Common Cause.

        1. Certainly abuses should be investigated and abuses dealt with, I agree completely.
          Just pointing out that if no one from a particular state is complaining about the district lines, there is probably a valid reason, and it warrants a closer look before assuming a ruthless power grab.
          Personally I like the Australian idea of an independence districting committee and monitoring with math based algorithms. But I am no expert so just a lay opinion.

      2. I have never seen Republican redistrict to help Democrats get elected anywhere we have lived. In ND redistricting is purely partisan. Even though they hold 70% of the seats, they manipulate districts. For example: If Democrats win 2 adjoining districts (in a city) they will not only grossly change the shape of one to include lots of hinterland Republican, but also put in little jogs so that the two winning Democrats are in the same district for the next election. As with Trump, our Republicans are mostly a bunch of greedy crooks.

        1. It’s truly pitiful that anyone would not only believe, but also write it where so many can read it, that the politicians from the party that almost half the electorate belongs to are, “mostly a bunch of greedy crooks”. Do you ever watch news from a source you don’t necessarily agree with? Has it ever occurred to you that maybe it isn’t only one party that engages in gerrymandering? For example, do you think AOC could have been elected from a district that was formed based strictly on geography? Do you believe congressional districts in NYC would naturally go from the Bronx across the East River into Queens. When was the last time Republicans controlled anything in New York except occasionally the Mayor’s office? I could ask the same question about Chicago, Detroit, L.A., San Francisco or almost any other major city in this country that’s completely falling apart. Do you think the democrats who have controlled those cities politically for the past 50-100 years have been “selfless honest pillars of society?

          1. Both parties do it, Larry, no question about it. But there’s one party right now that’s employing it in a systematic effort to suppress the vote of traditionally disenfranchised minorities.

            (Much as the other party did it even more ruthlessly in the pre-Voting Rights Act days of Jim Crow.)

            1. Ken, I was responding to Charles Sawicki’s post just above my response. His comment isn’t quite as nuanced as what you just wrote, but frankly, until I’m shown specific examples of Republicans suppressing minority voting through the use of gerrymandering as well as evidence that they engage in the practice more than Democrats do, I will remain skeptical that it is generally practiced more by one party than the other.

    2. “One motive for making it difficult for felons to vote is that it reflects a highly successful election strategy.”

      Exactly so!

      IIRC, Joe Halderman publicly admitted that Nixon’s “War On Drugs” was instituted in order to disenfranchise hippies and liberals.

  4. Throwing up roadblocks to re-enfranchisement of felons is one of the ways in which Republicans seek to suppress the votes of minorities, upon whom the hammer of felony adjudication falls more heavily.

    In Florida, for example, the state constitution was amended by ballot initiative passed in 2018 to restore the voting rights of felons upon the completion of their sentences. The Republican legislature nonetheless passed, and the Republican governor signed, a bill requiring proof that such offenders first establish that all fines, fees, restitution, and other costs associated with the underlying case be satisfied in full — something that is not always readily determinable from publicly available records, especially in cases that may be decades old.

    The ACLU, the NAACP, and the Brennan Center for Justice have a lawsuit pending challenging the law.

    1. And yet, in Kentucky, the jerk governor who just lost election gave pardons to over 600 people in prison, including murders and one who raped a 9 year old. So my question would be, who the hell gave such a pardon authority to anyone?

      1. The power to pardon is vested in the executive branch, in most US jurisdictions exclusively in the chief executive — governor or president. The power has its roots in the common law of England, where it was the sole province of the monarch, and is essentially absolute (although news reports out of Kentucky are that some of the pardons granted by former governor Matt Benvin’s on his way out the door are so sketchy the FBI is looking into them.

        Expect to see a flurry of pardons from Donald Trump between the 2020 election next November and inauguration day January 2021 — of his family members, for sure, of some of his criminal confederates, too, and he will most likely try to pardon himself, presenting our federal courts with a novel question of constitutional interpretation.

        1. My understand is, many states do not give total pardon control to the governor and of course, none should. They may have a committee or special group that must weight in. Nobody, far as I am concerned should have this power without some oversight. This idiot in Kentucky shows that.

          1. Florida is such a hybrid state. Clemency of any type — whether pardon, commutation of sentence, restitution of rights, etc. — requires the vote of the governor and the vote of a majority of the Florida Cabinet (which does double duty as the “Board of Clemency”).

            In every US jurisdiction I know of, any type of clemency is within the sole province of the executive branch.

  5. I can imagine a rationale for not letting felons vote. They may be more inclined to vote for politicians promising irresponsible legalization of criminal activity or reduction in penalties (particularly white collar crime). In general, since guilty convicted felons have in some sense abrogated their social contract with the larger society, they may be expected to skew the vote in ways that do not benefit society as a whole.

    Suppose for example that there were more convicted felons than other people, and suppose they were really guilty of horrendous crimes. Their vote could be expected to elect a politician who promised to let them all out of jail. This would not be good for that society. (Of course something is badly messed up with a society that produces more felons than non-felons, but I think that’s irrelevant to the argument.)

    1. We don’t let children vote either, and the justification of that policy is similar to the justification for not letting felons vote. I don’t think it is intended as a punishment in either case, but rather a way of making it more likely that voters are capable of wise decisions.

      1. Nonsense. It is not the same. The reason that children are not allowed to vote is the same reason they are not allowed to drive or drink alcohol; it is (rightly) believed that they have not yet matured enough to deal with the responsibilities that go with them.

        1. Yes, that’s right, we don’t let children vote becuase we rightly fear the possible bad effects of their voting, because of their immaturity. In other words, you are in favor of keeping a certain class of people from voting, because there is reason to believe they would not be very good at making the best choices for a healthy society. You prove my point.

          1. ” there is reason to believe they would not be very good at making the best choices for a healthy society. You prove my point.”

            Exactly half of all electorates in the world are more stupid than the other half. They still get to vote. Well, until your proposed explanation for denying felons the right to vote is enacted.

            I would propose that disenfranchisement of felons is much more motivated by the color of the skin of the preponderance of felons than their ability to make fine voting choices.

            And that the election of the “unindicted co-conspirator in Chief” seems to belie the idea of an informed electorate as a result of the culling process. Which encompasses, literally, many millions of potential voters.

            1. Obviously no criterion is perfect. Violation of basic rules of society (ie murdering people) is pretty good evidence of unfitness to participate in formulating those rules.

      2. If not being capable of wise decisions was the criterion, then we might also prevent those who have gone into bankruptcy from voting, too. Especially since we vote for representatives who must make very important and consequential decisions about budgets, financing, etc.

        1. I can see the possibilities of extending theses criteria to include some people who enter highly questionable professions, like politicians and corporate lobbyists. At least the ones who take bribes or support gerrimandering. They directly undercut democracy.

    2. That justification – that they may vote for “politicians promising irresponsible legalization of criminal activity” (what would responsible legalization of criminal activity look like?) could literally be applied to any group and it has< been applied to non-felons. If the bad old days of Jim Crow isn’t evidence enough of the danger of this kind of reasoning, I don’t know what to say.

      1. Yes, it is a dangerous two-edged sword. Still, the idea is not crazy; unrepentant murderers who have violated the most basic norms of our society maybe should not be allowed to have a voice in changing the rules for that society.

        1. I gave you an example of what I would consider worthy grounds for revoking voting rights: unrepetent murder. I’d also include serious whote-collar crimes like the Entron frauds. letting those people vote to rig the system in their favor seems like a bad idea.

    3. So much for paying one’s debt to society and getting a fresh start, eh? I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence to suggest that convicted felons would vote as a block, let alone in a block of sufficient numbers to enact laws to serve their criminal self-interest.

      I think corporations (who answer to no one save their stakeholders) that keep legislators in their pockets by spending billions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions (in exchange for which they are often given the opportunity to propose draft legislation having a direct impact on their own bottom lines) pose a much greater danger to our system of representative democracy.

      And, sure, we can suppose all we want that there might someday be a jurisdiction in which convicted felons outnumber other voters — just as we can suppose that someday the Queen will grow testicles and pronounce herself the King.

      1. Looking at extreme cases is a normal way to explore the ins and outs of a policy. I didn’t think teh scenario I described was likely; I only used it to show that there could be good reasons for taking away the right to vote for individuals who have chosen to commit major crimes, particularly for serious violent offenses. We can argue about wtat the criteria should be, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable to have some criteria.

        1. I agree with that, Lou (and apologize for being a bit snarky in my response).

          Nevertheless, while there’s a place for the reductio ad absurdum, I think clarity more likely to be shed on an issue such as this by posing a less improbable hypothetical.

      2. “I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence to suggest that convicted felons would vote as a block, let alone in a block of sufficient numbers…”

        I disagree. The preponderance of convicted felons (at least in the US) are people of color. And they overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

        That fact, not the supposed irrationality or criminal self-interest of felons, is why disenfranchisement is a cherished election strategy among US Republicans. I don’t seem to recall many (as in any) politicians running on a pro-crime platform in order to secure the votes of re-enfranchised felons.

        Unless we include politicians running with a position for the decriminalization of marijuana. But the decriminalization of victimless and capriciously-defined criminality seems a different kettle of fish.

        1. I think that’s entirely consistent with the point I made in comment #4 above.

          My point in responding to Lou Jost in this subthread was that it is fanciful to suggest that re-enfranchised ex-felons will vote as a block in favor of some type of pro-criminality legislative reform.

    4. In general I have some sympathy for arguments against universal enfranchisement, but I don’t think it’s consistent to deny the vote only to children and felons. As others have pointed out, there are many reasons a person might not be trusted to vote (e.g. a history of financial mismanagement) and the criteria for whom should be disenfranchised should be as consistent and objective as possible.

      Also, I think it’s very relevant that felons are expected to be a small percentage of the population. If they’re a small percentage of the population, then we shouldn’t expect that letting them vote would significantly damage society, and if they’re a large percentage of the population then that seems to indicate that the laws and policies of the society need changing.

      That said, I believe the push from Democrats to enfranchise felons and the resistance from Republicans is based on partisan politics, since felons are disproportionately non-white and would vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. If felons voted overwhelmingly Republican, I’m sure Democrats wouldn’t be pushing for enfranchisement.

    5. Since writing my comment, I have looked up what Wikipedia has to say about revoking felons’ voting rights. The argument I gave above turns out to be exactly the main justification given by proponents of disenfranchisement:

      “Proponents have argued that persons who commit felonies have ‘broken’ the social contract, and have thereby given up their right to participate in a civil society. Some argue that felons have shown poor judgment, and that they should therefore not have a voice in the political decision-making process.[3]”

      That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do, of course, but it confirms my claim that the explicit intent of disenfranchisement was not primarily punitive.

      And though today’s Republicans and past southern Democrats often support disenfranchisement for political and racial reasons, the history of disenfranchisement goes back to English law and even farther, to the Athenian democracy, and in the US it pre-dated the Civil War and did not origially have racial overtones.

      1. I can see that point of view. However, it seems to me that in the current environment, many criminals are young and have not yet learned to live in society. They need time to mature. In other cases they are drug addicted and probably are not very much responsible. They need time and maturity to grow past this phase. In some cases they are people who are just unlucky and have not learned to make an honest living. Shouldn’t society work to help them? The rest are sociopaths of one sort or another and so can rarely be trusted with the right to vote. But, I suspect this is a minority. Perhaps there is some justification for people who cannot change their irresponsible behavior to be blocked from the polls, but, I suspect the vast majority are not irredeemable and ought to be provided the chance to recover.

        1. Yes, I agree with that too. I opened my first comment only to say, like you, that there could be a vlaid rationale for disenfranchisement. I don’t agree with all the current details or with the current motivation (which is probably mostly racist).

  6. I favor restoring the vote to those that have served their sentences. However, I find it reasonable that people serving time (i.e., being deprived of their freedom) also be deprived of their vote as part of their sanctions. The lesson here should be that in a democracy we the people vote on our lawmakers but, at the same time, we should obey those laws, and people who do not obey the laws should play no part in making them until they have paid their price to society for breaking them. It is a lesson in the meaning of citizenship that lawbreakers should learn.

    1. Prisoners being deprived of the right to vote might be reasonable if there was a fair justice system, but that doesn’t exist in the USA [nor the UK, but not relevant here]:

      “Evidence suggests that there is significant disparity in the racial gap in incarceration rates across judges, supporting the idea that at least some judges treat defendants differently based on their race”

      PDF OF STUDY SUMMARY that’s a rather old example, but there’s many other studies pointing to discrimination within the justice system [all agencies of said system].

      1. Compared to being deprived of one’s liberty or life, being deprived of one’s vote is a trivial consequence of an unfair justice system. The unfairness of the justice system, if it exists, is a different matter.

        1. My implied point – that I thought you’d get immediately is… On the national level or the state level it skews voter registration. See rickflick comment below.

          1. And being deprived of the right to vote prevents people from having a say over the government, who determines who will be deprived of liberty or life.

            Those in power could decide to pass laws to make more of the ‘wrong’ people ineligible to vote.

            Betting some Republican controlled states wouldn’t use their state majorities to create a program to disenfranchise voters by way of petty convictions isn’t a bet I’d take.

            Right now it’s felons that can’t vote but that is arbitrary at the whim of legislation and can be changed by the ruling party. Perhaps next it will be people who are late on their taxes, fines, or have parking tickets.

            Once passed how do you change such laws if you are barred from selecting your representation, especially if the party passing the laws have a lock on the judicial system?

            This may sound alarmist to some but that is in effect what is happening to large numbers of people. As you point out, the judicial system is biased. I would point out the number of prosecutors who have been caught in unethical/illegal acts, hardly any ever get even a slap on the wrist. The justice system is biased in regards to enforcement, biased against the poor, biased against minorities.

            It seems short sighted to place the ability to vote in partisan hands. We’ve seen what that does.

            1. “Perhaps next it will be people who are late on their taxes, fines, or have parking tickets.”

              I just realized, there are of course states that will not issue drivers licenses if they have outstanding fines, parking tickets, toll fines.
              I don’t know if or how many are mandatory ID voting states.

  7. There’s a policy for that!

    “As President, I will…

    Restore voting rights to individuals convicted of felonies and prohibit states from denying ex-felons the right to vote.
    Restore voting rights for current inmates unless they have deprived someone else of their right to vote.
    Prioritize all initiatives to expand and restore voting rights in the U.S. to the previously and currently incarcerated.”

    1. I think that would be great as a matter of policy, but doing so by federal statute would be of dubious constitutionality as applied to state elections under what Justice Hugo Black was famous for labeling “Our Federalism.”

      Any such nationwide change in the law would require an amendment to the US constitution — as was accomplished with the lowering of the national voting age to 18 by ratification of the 26th amendment.

      1. Fair enough, but there is still value in electing leaders with good intentions, even if it proves difficult or impossible to follow through on them in every case.

  8. Motives for disenfranchisement could be racial.

    “About 25% of the total US adult black population has a felony, while 6.5% of adult non-blacks have a felony conviction…About 20 million people have a felony conviction in Amerika. That works out to about 1 in 12 adult Americans.” – Libertarian News.

    1. Right. And taking away the votes of felons means blacks (sorry if that should have a capital “B”) are disproportionately prevented from voting. Funniest thing. Wonder which party most of them would vote for…

  9. Your list of countries allowing convicts to vote is incomplete (not just by leaving out South Africa) in the sense that in countries such as France, the Netherlands or Portugal it is very rare for prisoners to be deprived of voting. Only by (rare) special court order or separate sentencing and generally for felonies involving voting, treason or crimes against the state. Very rare in other words.

  10. It is puzzling why the Supreme Court would rule to allow the states to decide entirely. Of all the different voting restrictions, a lifetime ban from voting, even after full dept to society is repaid, is so obviously wrong that I am fairly aghast they could not find reason to rule against that.

  11. In Canada incarcerated offenders have the right to vote.

    The comments here from people suggesting that felons may vote for politician who are more lenient on crime are off the mark.

    Having worked in prisons for 25 years, inmates, at least in Canada, tend to be fairly conservative in their political views, for the most part.

  12. It’s not only unjust to deny prisoners and especially ex-cons the right to vote, it’s also counterproductive. Everything society can do to heal the bonds between the offender and society, should be done. If a prisoner wants to vote, that shows engagement and an interest in trying to improve our society, and should be encouraged.

    But perhaps more important, not putting people away except as a last resort, is an even better way to encourage re-connection and integration into society.

    I think Ken and EdwardM have correctly diagnosed the main real reason so many states have taken away these voting rights.

  13. How much profit does the US “justice” and penal system return to it’s investors each year? Too much, or too little?

  14. Having voted while imprisoned (in New Zealand, where short-term prisoners could vote before 2010 and can vote again now) I can confirm that prisoners are not unilaterally liberal voters. An attitude of social responsibility tends to keep people out of prison.
    The engagement of prisoners in civil society, which in the form of voting is anonymous and safe for the public, is obviously rehabilitative. The worst of the worst category is such a small % of the population that they need not concern us politically except when we are stupid enough to vote for them.
    Nor should it be necessary for an imprisoned voter to re-enroll. If voting is not allowed in prison, this need only be a suspended privilege. After all, they cannot vote, on the roll or not, if the means are not supplied, so there is no reason to remove them from the roll.

    1. “An attitude of social responsibility tends to keep people out of prison.”

      Allowing voting in prison might help with rehabilitation. It would remind the convict that he is part of a society that wants to hear from him.

Leave a Reply