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Sunday, May 19, 2024
Criminal JusticeGov & Politics

Felony disenfranchisement in the US: An explainer

People incarcerated for felony convictions lose the right to vote across most of the U.S., but specifics vary widely by state. We break down the nuances and recent trends — and highlight six studies journalists covering the topic should know.

Editor’s commentary: This is a great resource for information on felony disenfranchisement, including state laws against it, and actual findings from studies that have been conducted on it in the U.S.

Note the states that take away a citizen’s right to vote forever vs. only while incarcerated for a felony conviction. What do you see?


U.S. citizens ages 18 and older who are registered to vote can cast ballots in local, state and federal elections. But states, which conduct and administer many elections, including federal elections, can also take away individuals’ right to vote for certain reasons.

A felony conviction, either in state or federal court, is one common way people lose the right to vote in the U.S. This process is commonly referred to as felony disenfranchisement. Because laws on felony disenfranchisement vary by state, there are a range of outcomes when it comes to the voting rights of those convicted of felonies. While nearly every state curtails voting for people convicted of felonies while they are incarcerated, not every felony conviction results in prison time.

Convictions can result from jury trials or plea deals, and the vast majority of criminal convictions in the U.S. are obtained by guilty plea, according to a 2023 report from the American Bar Association. Most people in jail for misdemeanor offenses or while awaiting court hearings can vote, but they face challenges, such as a lack of opportunities to register, according to reporting from Matt Vasilogambros of Stateline, a nonprofit news organization.

“In 11 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored,” according to research from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

  • Those 11 strictest states are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming, according to the NCSL. Florida “disenfranchises more returning citizens than any other state,” write the authors of a January 2023 paper in the Vanderbilt Law Review.
  • There are 14 states where people convicted of felonies lose the right to vote while incarcerated, as well as while completing probation or parole, according to the NCSL. These states are Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
  • There are 23 states where people convicted of felonies lose the right to vote only while incarcerated, according to the NCSL, with the right automatically reinstated after time served. These states are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and Washington.       
  • People convicted of felonies in the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont do not lose their voting rights and can vote while incarcerated.
  • In some states, people convicted of a felony can vote in the state where they live even if they wouldn’t be eligible in the state where they were convicted. Journalists covering this topic should consult legislation and reach out to legal experts to understand their state rules for restoring voting rights. For a quick look at restoring voting rights for people with criminal convictions, check this U.S. Department of Justice state-by-state guide.

More than 4 million people in the U.S. are barred from voting because of a felony conviction, according to estimates from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for “effective and humane responses to crime.” News outlets commonly cite reports and policy briefs from The Sentencing Project, and their data is used in academic research, including in one of the papers featured below.

Over the past quarter century, about half of state legislatures have moved to restore voting rights to those disenfranchised due to a felony conviction.

“Since 1997, 26 states and the District of Columbia have expanded voting rights to people living with felony convictions,” according to an October 2023 report from The Sentencing Project. “As a result, over 2 million Americans have regained the right to vote.”

State felony disenfranchisement laws arose during the post-Civil War era, when the Reconstruction Act of 1867 affirmed universal suffrage for all men.

“At that point, two interconnected trends combined to make disenfranchisement a major obstacle for newly enfranchised black voters,” according to a 2017 report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “First, lawmakers — especially in the South — implemented a slew of criminal laws designed to target black citizens. And nearly simultaneously, many states enacted broad disenfranchisement laws that revoked voting rights from anyone convicted of any felony.”

Mississippi is something of an outlier among the strictest states in that people convicted of felonies in federal court do not lose voting rights there, but people convicted of felonies in state courts for a range of crimes do lose the right to vote, according to the U.S. Department of Justice guide on voting rights for people with criminal convictions. The right to vote in Mississippi can only be restored by pardon or legislative action, according to the guide.

Rules for restoring voting rights in states that allow it can also vary. Even if the right is “automatically” reinstated, often individuals must still proactively re-register to vote, according to the NCSL.

Below, we have gathered and summarized six studies that explore demographic trends in felony disenfranchisement as well as how felony disenfranchisement affects political engagement and electoral democracy in U.S. states.

The findings show …

  • Public health outcomes tend to be worse in states where democratic processes are affected by policies such as felony disenfranchisement.
  • People are more likely to support felony disenfranchisement when they express attitudes aligned with xenophobia and when they support policies that would restrict immigration and reduce government funding for public programs.
  • Felony disenfranchisement is relatively higher where Black populations also exhibit higher rates of depressive symptoms.
  • Restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies is unlikely to meaningfully affect election results — but those who have their voting rights restored tend to feel they personally have more of a say in how their state governments operate.

Electoral Democracy and Working-Age Mortality
Jennifer Karas Montez, Kent Jason Cheng and Jacob Grumbach. The Milbank Quarterly, May 2023.

The study: The authors explore the relationship between the democratic health of a state and the physical health of people aged 25 to 64 in that state. They use the State Democracy Index, which measures the health of each state’s democratic processes based on 51 indicators, such as felony disenfranchisement, the availability of absentee voting and voter registration requirements. (The index was developed by Jacob Grumbach, an associate professor public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.) The authors of the paper also use mortality rates for working-age people from the National Center for Health Statistics.

The findings: Working-age mortality and electoral democratic health are strongly associated, the authors find. States that improve their electoral democracy rating from “moderate” to “high” could see their working-age mortality rates fall 3.2% for men and 2.7% for women, according to estimates from statistical models the authors developed. The authors further estimate that state improvements to electoral democracy are associated with lower drug poisoning deaths for men and women, along with deaths from infectious diseases and homicides.

In the authors’ words: “According to historians … real improvements in population health in the mid- to late 1800s in industrializing countries such as England came about largely because of increased voting power of the public and, partly as a consequence, the rise of government interventions such as sanitation and clean water systems to improve social conditions for everyone. The historical association between rising democratic functioning and declining mortality is the flip side of today’s association between declining democratic functioning and rising mortality.”

Exclusionary Citizenship: Public Punitiveness and Support for Voting Restrictions
Cecilia Chouhy, Peter Lehmann and Alexa Singer. Justice Quarterly, August 2022.

The study: The authors explore links between individual support for “anti-welfarism, anti-immigrant attitudes and symbolic racism,” and support for disenfranchisement of people convicted of felonies. Symbolic racism refers to “an apathy toward racial inequalities and a rejection of efforts to mitigate them,” the authors write. Specifically, the authors analyze results from 7,453 adults who took the 2020 American National Election Survey, a public opinion poll conducted during the weeks before and after presidential elections, operated by collaboration of several major universities.

The findings: People are more likely to support felony disenfranchisement when they express attitudes aligned with xenophobia or symbolic racism. They also tend to support policies that would restrict immigration and reduce government funding for public programs such as social security, education and aid to people with low incomes.

Support for the death penalty, likewise, is associated with support for felony disenfranchisement, the authors find. This association is strongest among Republicans, compared with Democrats. Among Democrats, attitudes aligned with symbolic racism are more likely to lead to support for felony disenfranchisement, compared with Republicans and independents.

In the authors’ words: “Our findings suggest that racial animosities, as well as xenophobia and support for immigration restrictions, not only are correlated with attitudes favoring punitive criminal justice policies but also explain differences in public support for punitive and non-punitive forms of voting restrictions.”

Sick And Tired of Being Excluded: Structural Racism in Disenfranchisement As A Threat To Population Health Equity
Patricia Homan and Tyson Brown. Health Affairs, February 2022.

The study: Does felony disenfranchisement affect health during middle and later life? The authors seek to shed light on this question. They use data from The Sentencing Project and the U.S. Census Bureau to assess whether Black people in each state are over- or under-represented among those disenfranchised due to felony convictions. Then, they compare that information with results from the Health and Retirement Study from the University of Michigan, a nationally representative survey of adults over age 51 that is “the most widely used dataset for studying health and well-being in later life,” the authors write. The datasets are from 2016, the most recent available.

“This study focused on Black and White people because they have the highest and lowest rates of disenfranchisement, respectively,” the authors explain in the paper. The final analysis excludes 15 states that have relatively small populations of Black people. The 35 states included account for 92% of the U.S. white population and 99% of the Black population, the authors write.

The findings: During the year studied, Black people were proportionally disenfranchised at a higher rate than white people in all 35 states, but particularly in states in the North, Mountain West and West. States in the South tended to have lower rates of proportional Black disenfranchisement. The authors find that felony disenfranchisement is relatively higher in states where older Black populations also exhibit higher rates of depressive symptoms and difficulty performing everyday tasks, such as using a telephone, shopping, bathing, dressing and getting in and out of bed. There was no association found between disenfranchisement among Black people and these health outcomes among white people.

In the authors’ words: “Consistent with the growing recognition that social policies are health policies, enacting laws to dismantle racialized felony disenfranchisement would likely improve the health of Black people and make progress toward achieving health equity.”

How Often do People Vote While Incarcerated? Evidence from Maine and Vermont
Ariel White and Avery Nguyen. The Journal of Politics, January 2022.

The study: The authors begin with data from the 2018 elections across 17 states that disenfranchise people while they are incarcerated for felony offenses and explore what the turnout rates would have to have been for those individuals to swing elections if they were granted the right to vote while incarcerated. The highest was Massachusetts, where the closest race in 2018 was decided by 654,161 votes — if the 8,870 people in that state who were disenfranchised due to felony incarcerations had been able to vote, they would have had to vote at a rate of 8,090%, an impossibility, and all would have had to have voted against the winning candidate. The lowest was Nevada, where those incarcerated for felonies would have had to vote at a rate of 36%, and all against the winning candidate, to swing the closest election held there that year.

The authors note that “studies of people who have regained their right to vote after incarceration find that they participate at much lower rates than other votes,” and then turn to whether the question of whether people incarcerated for felonies vote in the two states, Maine and Vermont, where they are never disenfranchised. They use prison records and state voter files to explore this question.

The findings: About one-in-three people serving time in Vermont for felony crimes were registered to vote during the 2018 election, while 8% of all people incarcerated for felonies voted. Similarly, in Maine, about one-third of those incarcerated for felony crimes were registered in 2018, while around 6% of people incarcerated for felonies cast ballots.

In the authors’ words: “This conclusion — that from-prison voter turnout is low even in Vermont and Maine and would be unlikely to affect state elections elsewhere — does not imply that we think states should avoid such policies. Rather, we suggest that policy makers should consider moral arguments rather than casual predictions about how these laws might change elections.”

Neighborhoods and Felony Disenfranchisement: The Case of New York City
Kevin Morris. Urban Affairs Review, September 2021.

The study: Morris explores whether voter turnout rates by neighborhood during the 2017 New York City mayoral election are linked to the proportion of people disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, by neighborhood. In particular, Morris identifies “lost voters,” which he defines as people with a history of voting before their disenfranchisement due to felony conviction. The data Morris analyzes includes felony incarceration and parole records since 1990, which he obtained via public records request from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Morris also uses a snapshot of publicly available, statewide voter data from April 2018, which includes whether individuals voted in the past as well as those who lost eligibility and were removed from the active voter file. He identifies 2,518 “lost voters” during the 2017 election.

The findings: Neighborhoods with lost voters also had lower average turnout rates in the 2017 election than the overall average neighborhood. In addition, neighborhoods without a lost voter during the 2016 general election that then lost at least one voter by 2017 also had lower turnout rates.

Morris identifies clear demographic differences between neighborhoods with lost voters and those without. The median income for a neighborhood with lost voters was $47,806, on average, compared with $65,495 in the overall average neighborhood. The percentage of Black people in neighborhoods with lost voters was 41%, on average, compared with the overall average of 22%. The percentage of Latino people in neighborhoods with lost voters was also higher than the overall average — 36% to 29%. Registered Democrats made up 77% of the electorate in neighborhoods with lost voters, on average, compared with an overall average of 68%.

In the author’s words: “Individuals who live in neighborhoods where police activity is relatively limited may interpret the incarceration of a neighbor as a largely individual phenomenon … In the neighborhoods where policing is most prevalent — often, lower-income Black communities — the incarceration of a neighbor might not be interpreted so individualistically. It may, rather, be interpreted as another reminder of the government’s unfairness. If a would-be voter finds herself soured on political participation because of her neighbor’s incarceration, she may be less likely to cast a ballot.”

Restoring Voting Rights: Evidence that Reversing Felony Disenfranchisement Increases Political Efficacy
Victoria Shineman. Policy Studies, December 2019.

The study: Shineman explores what happens to the political efficacy of people who have been convicted of felonies and disenfranchised after their right to vote is then restored or made eligible to be restored. Political efficacy refers to “the feeling that individual political action does have, or can have, an impact upon the political process,” according to foundational political science research from the mid-1950s.

Shineman conducted a survey of people with felony convictions eligible to have their voting rights restored, before and after the 2017 statewide elections in Virginia. In 2016, an executive gubernatorial order and subsequent court ruling allowed people convicted of felonies in Virginia to have their voting rights restored, one at a time, by executive order. By the 2017 election, more than 150,000 people had their right to vote restored, according to the paper.

Those who had their voting rights restored were notified by mail at their last known residence. But people convicted of felonies are “a particularly transient population,” Shineman writes, meaning many of those now able to vote did not know it.

Shineman convened a panel of 98 people convicted of felonies, divided into three groups, to assess their political efficacy before and after the 2017 election cycle. The first group was told the state sought to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies, and Shineman offered to look up their registration status. The second group received the same treatment, plus they were told about the upcoming election, how to register and where to vote. The third was a placebo group that was encouraged to engage in civic activity by volunteering in their neighborhoods, but not told that they could potentially register to vote, or about the election. Participants were surveyed about their feelings of political efficacy before and after the 2017 election cycle.

The findings: Among participants in the first two groups, about 21% learned from Shineman that their right to vote had been restored. Shineman notes that the sample size is small, which somewhat limits the strength of the results. With that caveat in mind, the treatment groups exhibited higher rates of political efficacy than the placebo group. For example, about 90% of people in those groups agreed with the statement “my vote makes a difference,” compared with 73% in the placebo group. Some 81% of participants in the treatment groups said they felt qualified to serve in a jury, compared with 76% of those in the placebo group. And 68% of the treatment participants said they “feel politically empowered,” compared with 57% of the placebo group.

In the author’s words: “Regardless as to whether citizens choose to exercise their voting rights, the act of restoring rights alone causes citizens to feel more empowered, more capable, and to be more likely to seek out opportunities for participatory engagement in the future.”

This article was originally published on The Journalist’s Resource and republished here, with permission, under a Creative Commons — Attribution/No derivatives license.

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