Background and History
The idea of taking away a criminal’s right to vote has been around since ancient Greece and Rome. A condition called “civil death” in Europe involved the forfeiture of property, the loss of the right to appear in court, and a prohibition on entering into contracts, as well as the loss of voting rights. Civil death was brought to America by English colonists, but most aspects of it were eventually abolished, leaving only felon disenfranchisement intact in some parts of modern America.
Categories of Disenfranchisement
State approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. In Florida, Iowa and Virginia, felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote. Virginia and Florida have supplementary programs which facilitate gubernatorial pardons. The remaining states each have their own approaches to the issue.
- In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence.
- In some states, ex-felons must wait for a certain period of time after the completion of their sentence before rights can be restored.
- In some states, an ex-felon must apply to have voting rights restored.
|Never Lose Right to Vote||Lost Only While Incarcerated;
Automatic Restoration After Release
|Lost Until the Completion Of Sentence (Parole and/or Probation); Automatic Restoration After||Restoration by Governor’s Action or Court Action|
|Maine||District of Columbia||Arizona (1)||Alabama|
|New Hampshire||Idaho||Wyoming (7)|
|Rhode Island||Nebraska (4)|
(2) In 2016, California passed legislation allowing those in county jails to vote while incarcerated, but not state or federal prison.
Even in states where ex-offenders automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, the process of re-registering to vote often is difficult. One reason is the complexity of the laws and processes surrounding disenfranchisement. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whose rights can be restored. This can vary in some states according to the date of the crime, the conviction, or the release from prison, or the nature of the crime. The complex restoration process also can be daunting. It often involves lengthy paperwork, burdensome documentation, and the involvement and coordination of several state agencies.
A second barrier to restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders is the often inconsistent communication among agencies. The methods of communicating the loss and restoration of voting rights among courts, corrections and elections officials are not always reliable, timely or consistent. This inconsistency can result in uneven application of the law, even when the laws are clear. Another barrier is lack of information. Ex-offenders sometimes are not aware that they regain their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence. They go through life believing they cannot vote when, in fact, they can. In other cases, they are not informed of the process for regaining their rights or offered assistance in doing so. As long as they remain ignorant of the necessary steps, ex-offenders cannot begin the process of regaining voting rights.
A final obstacle is under-funding of parole boards in some states where offenders must apply to have their rights restored. A massive backlog of applications can exist because the agencies do not have adequate staff or resources to process them in a timely manner.