The state of ex-felons’ voting rights, explained (2023)

Just four years ago, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia all blocked people convicted of felonies from ever voting again — even after they had fully completed their sentences for prison, parole, or probation.

Today, every one of these states — most recently, Iowa — has allowed at least some people who’ve finished their sentences to vote, potentially reenfranchising hundreds of thousands of Americans.

It hasn’t been an easy shift. In Florida, voters approved an amendment to their state constitution in 2018 that lets people who’ve completed their sentences vote again, excluding those convicted of murder or felony sex offenses. But the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a law requiring ex-felons to pay all outstanding court fees before they’re allowed to vote — blocking possibly hundreds of thousands of Floridians who can’t afford the fees from voting.

The law is now tied up in legal battles, with a recent federal appeals court ruling in its favor.

But the trend has been toward enfranchising more people as they get out of prison or after they serve other sentences.

The state of ex-felons’ voting rights, explained (1)

Some activists want to go further, with a goal of giving everyone the right to vote even if they’re currently incarcerated. Only two states — Maine and Vermont — currently let people vote even from prison, regardless of their crimes.

The rest of the states impose some kinds of restrictions, including barring people from voting permanently if they committed worse crimes (like murder), or only letting them vote after they complete prison, parole, probation, or all of the above.

Supporters of loosening the restrictions further argue that voting should be a universal right — one not affected by even a felony record. They point out that these laws have a racially disproportionate impact, particularly on Black people, due to the systemic racism that runs through the criminal justice system. And in some cases, they note, that may be intentional: Some of these disenfranchisement laws have roots in the Jim Crow era, in which lawmakers around the country replaced the system of slavery with another system of legal oppression.

(Video) Voter Suppression and Felony Voting: The Debate Explained

As Florida’s experience shows, though, there’s still resistance to allowing everyone to vote. Some of that is strictly political: Republicans in particular worry that allowing ex-felons to vote could boost turnout for Democrats. Others simply object to the idea of letting people vote while they’re in prison or due to their felony records — seeing their loss of the right to vote as part of the punishment for their crimes.

That latter point of contention has led to debate not just between Republicans and Democrats but also within the Democratic Party. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) argued during the 2020 presidential primaries that people should be allowed to vote within prison, and more moderate candidates in the race pushed back.

A lot is potentially at stake: More than 6 million Americans in 2016 were prohibited from voting due to a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project. That included more than 20 percent of all potential Black voters in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia at the time.

While the research suggests not all of those people would end up voting, many likely would, and that could disproportionately benefit Democrats — who have much more support from minority communities — in states with very close votes, including Florida.

Where the debate lands, then, could determine not just who has the right to vote in America but which political directions the country goes in the future.

Some felony disenfranchisement laws have roots in Jim Crow

Preventing people with criminal records from voting in the US goes back to the colonial era and the concept of “civil death” — the notion that some bad actions effectively left a person dead in terms of civic engagement. But there’s also a uniquely American, racist twist to this story, rooted in Jim Crow.

Felony disenfranchisement laws were part of the push after the Civil War, particularly in the South, to limit civil rights gains following the end of slavery and ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th constitutional amendments protecting minority rights. This resistance also included the Jim Crow laws that legally enforced racial segregation, as well as other limits on Black voting power. Undoing all of this has been a decades-long project for civil rights activists.

For example, after the South lost the Civil War, state lawmakers in Florida enacted laws — the Black Codes — to constrain Black rights. They created crimes, such as disobedience and “disrespect to the employer,” that could be enforced in a way that would target and criminalize Black people in particular, according to a 2016 report by the Brennan Center for Justice, an advocacy group.

(Video) Felon Voting Laws by State | a GOOD Data Viz

Then, when Florida was forced to write voting rights protections for men of all races into its state constitution, lawmakers added an exception that would exempt victims of the Black Codes:

Article XIV, Section 2, imposed a lifetime voting ban for people with felony convictions. Section 4 of this same suffrage article directed the legislature to “enact the necessary laws to exclude from … the right of suffrage, all persons convicted of bribery, perjury, larceny, or of infamous crime” — the same crimes the legislature had recently recognized and expanded through the Black Code.

Since then, Florida has changed its constitution and laws, Brennan noted. The felony disenfranchisement law was reformed again after the report, in the 2018 elections and the following year. But the roots of its post–Civil War disenfranchisement laws linger.

Florida was not alone. Journalists and historians have documented similar efforts in Virginia and other Southern states. And, of course, the federal government had to enact the (now-weakened) Voting Rights Act of 1965 to shield Black voters from state-level discrimination, as well as other civil rights laws to prohibit other forms of systemic racism.

But the criminal justice system remains one path toward disenfranchising voters, with a criminal or felony record often costing people various legal rights and protections even after they get out of jail or prison. And this system is rife with racial disparities, as Radley Balko explained for the Washington Post in his thorough breakdown of the research.

“We use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind,” Michelle Alexander argued in her influential (and at times criticized) book The New Jim Crow. “Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”

Still, felony disenfranchisement laws have survived legal challenges. Courts, including the US Supreme Court, have generally upheld such voting restrictions under the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which suggests the government may abridge the right to vote due to “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”

Without the courts, the only real hope for these efforts is to turn influential politicians and public opinion around on the issue. This might have to trickle down to the state level, too, because there’s some scholarly debate about whether Congress even has the power to end felony disenfranchisement at the federal level.

(Video) An explanation on felon voting rights for the presidential election

There’s a push to end felony disenfranchisement

Given this racist history and the continued disproportionate disenfranchisement of Black voters through this system, activists have called for an end to these laws. Some have said that every US citizen should have the right to vote, no matter the circumstances.

In 2019, Sen. Sanders, whose home state of Vermont lets people vote from within prison, made the issue a part of his platform in the presidential primary. He argued that voting is a right that should never be taken away from anyone in a democracy. And that means people, no matter how terrible they prove to be, should keep their right to vote.

“Even if Trump’s former campaign manager and personal lawyer end up in jail, they should still be able to vote — regardless of who they cast their vote for,” he wrote in USA Today. He later added, “In my view, the crooks on Wall Street who caused the great recession of 2008 that hurt millions of Americans are not ‘good’ people. But they have the right to vote, and it should never be taken away.”

This led to some Democratic opposition. Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg led the charge, arguing, “I do believe that when you are out, when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation again — and one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote. … But part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom. And I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

More conservative politicians, particularly Republicans, have resisted even more moderate efforts to restore people’s right to vote after they’ve completed their sentences. That’s occurred in Florida, where state legislators and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) passed a law to force ex-felons to pay back court fees, fines, and restitution, or get an exemption from a judge, before they can vote. Activists have called this a poll tax, invoking Jim Crow restrictions on voting, but the courts are still deciding the issue.

Just as there’s significant debate within the Democratic Party about the issue, there are some exceptions to the Republican opposition. Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, in August restored voting rights for people who’ve completed their felony sentences, with exceptions for homicide offenses. “The right to vote is the cornerstone of society and the free republic in which we live,” Reynolds said in a statement. “When someone serves their sentence, they should have their right to vote restored automatically.”

Part of this is a genuine philosophical question: Can someone at some point do something so terrible that they lose their right to vote? For Sanders, and many activists, the answer is no. For others, the answer is yes, though views on just how terrible the act has to be before that right is lost, and how long the right is lost for, varies from person to person.

But for Republicans, there are also clear political motivations. While the evidence on this topic is far from perfect, there’s some research indicating that restoring the right to vote for those with felony records could have a political impact. Experts Marc Meredith at the University of Pennsylvania and Michael Morse at Yale wrote for Vox:

(Video) The Cost Of Restoring Voting Rights To Former Felons

Had all ex-felons been eligible to vote in Florida in 2016, we estimate that this would have generated about 102,000 additional votes for Democrats and about 54,000 additional votes for Republicans, with about an additional 40,000 votes that could be cast on behalf of either party.

That added up to about 48,000 votes on net for Democrats. In a state where recent Senate and gubernatorial races came down to as little as 10,000 to 30,000 votes, that could swing the whole thing.

It’s for similar reasons that Republicans have repeatedly resisted other efforts to expand voting rights in the US, particularly if they benefit minority voters who are more likely to vote for Democrats. Some Republicans have outright admitted to their political motivations. As William Wan reported for the Washington Post, regarding a Republican-backed law in North Carolina:

Longtime Republican consultant Carter Wrenn, a fixture in North Carolina politics, said the GOP’s voter fraud argument is nothing more than an excuse.

“Of course it’s political. Why else would you do it?” he said, explaining that Republicans, like any political party, want to protect their majority. While GOP lawmakers might have passed the law to suppress some voters, Wrenn said, that does not mean it was racist.

“Look, if African Americans voted overwhelmingly Republican, they would have kept early voting right where it was,” Wrenn said. “It wasn’t about discriminating against African Americans. They just ended up in the middle of it because they vote Democrat.”

The flip side is that while Republicans have generally succeeded in passing more and more voting restrictions across the country in the past decade, the trend has moved in the other direction for criminal disenfranchisement laws.

That makes these laws one of the few areas in the US in which there’s been genuine movement toward expanded voting right over the past several years.

(Video) Do Convicted Felons Have The Right To Vote In California?

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How does Texas address the issue of voting and convicted felons? ›

Voting in Texas with a Felony Conviction

Once someone has "fully discharged" their sentence or has been pardoned, their right to vote is automatically restored in Texas. However, it is not always clear as to when a sentence has been fully completed.

Who Cannot vote in the US? ›

Who CAN'T Vote? Non-citizens, including permanent legal residents cannot vote in federal, state, and most local elections. Some people following felony convictions or who are currently serving time for other types of crimes. Rules are different in each state.

Can you vote in Missouri if you have a felony? ›

Yes. Upon completion of your sentence and probation or parole, you are eligible to vote in elections. Individuals who have been convicted of an election offense, whether a felony or misdemeanor, are not allowed to vote.

Can you vote in Ohio if your a felon? ›

MAY I VOTE IF I HAVE BEEN CONVICTED OF A CRIME? A person currently serving time in jail or prison for a felony conviction can neither register to vote nor vote. Additionally, a person who has twice been convicted of a violation of Ohio's elections laws is permanently barred from voting in Ohio.

What rights do felons lose in Texas? ›

With a felony conviction, you lose your right to hold public office or any public position without a full pardon. You are also disqualified from holding certain professions if you have a felony conviction.

Can felons get a passport? ›

According to USA Today, most felons can get a passport without a problem. This is assuming a person is not currently awaiting trial, on probation or parole or otherwise banned from leaving the country.

Can a felon vote? ›

As of 2018, most U.S. states had policies to restore voting rights upon completion of a sentence. Only 3 states — Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia — permanently disenfranchised a felony convict and 6 other states limited restoration based on crimes of "moral turpitude". The US Supreme Court in Richardson v.

Do U.S. prisoners have the right to vote? ›

cannot register and vote: Currently serving a state or federal prison term for the conviction of a felony in: State prison. Federal prison.

What is the 26th amendment in simple terms? ›

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

What can felons not do? ›

A person may not vote, serve on a jury, obtain commercial driver's licenses, possess a gun or join the U.S. armed forces.

Can a felon vote in Wisconsin? ›

At the polling place, a person who registers to vote must sign a form indicating whether he or she has been convicted of a felony for which he or she has not been pardoned and, if so, whether he or she is incarcerated or on extended supervision, parole, or probation.

Can a felon own a gun in Missouri? ›

Section 571.070 of the Missouri Revised States provides that convicted felons may not possess firearms. Federal law also prohibits felons from possessing firearms.

Can a convicted felon vote in Idaho? ›

No person is permitted to vote, serve as a juror, or hold any civil office who has, at any place, been convicted of a felony, and who has not been restored to the rights of citizenship, or who, at the time of such election, is confined in prison on conviction of a criminal offense. How current is this law?

What rights do you lose as a felon? ›

The rights most often curtailed include the right to vote and hold public office, employment rights, domestic rights, and financial and contractual rights. State statutes and local ordinances are the traditional means for abridging the rights of convicted criminals.

Can the spouse of a convicted felon own a gun in Texas? ›

As long as your wife doesn't have any disqualifying reasons, she can own a firearm. The problem is, that as a convicted felon, you cannot own, use or possess a firearm. It's not just ownership - it's the "possession" that could hurt you.

How long do felonies stay on your record in Texas? ›

Class A and B misdemeanors: 1 year. All felonies: 3 years.

What countries can felons not travel to? ›

Here is a list of countries that don't allow convicted felons to enter:
  • Argentina.
  • Australia.
  • Canada.
  • China.
  • Cuba.
  • India.
  • Iran.
  • Israel.

Can you go to Mexico with a felony? ›

Can you go to Mexico with a felony? Yes, as a felon, you are not automatically denied access to Mexico but there are some exceptions. Mexican authorities will deny your entry if you have committed a serious crime, such as murder, terrorism, or drug trafficking.

Can I go to Canada with a felony? ›

Any American that has a felony conviction on their criminal record may not be permitted entry into Canada unless they have received special permission from the Canadian Government.

Which term describes a restriction on the voting rights of convicted felons quizlet? ›

Felony disenfranchisement statistics: As of 2016, 6.1 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felony offenses. Felony disenfranchisement rates vary by state, as states institute a wide range of disenfranchisement policies.

Is felon disenfranchisement unconstitutional? ›

Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that convicted felons could be barred from voting without violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Such felony disenfranchisement is practiced in a number of U.S. states.

What percentage of the US population are convicted felons? ›

Number of People by State Who Cannot Vote Due to a Felony Conviction
StateTotal% Disenfranchised
8 more rows
30 Jul 2021

What are your rights as a prisoner? ›

The Rights of Prisoners: Overview

Prisoners also enjoy First Amendment protections, including the right to practice one's religion; the right to voice concerns over prison conditions; the right to access the courts to air complaints; and other aspects of free speech.

Can former felons vote in Massachusetts? ›

In Massachusetts and some other states, the right to vote is temporarily suspended while a person is incarcerated for a felony offense. They may vote again after they are released from prison. In some states, even people convicted of a misdemeanor cannot vote while incarcerated.

Do prisoners have Internet access? ›

Internet use in prisons allows inmates to communicate with the outside world. Much like the use of telephones in prisons, the use of the internet under supervision, for various purposes, is approved in 49 U.S. correctional systems and five Canadian provinces.

What is the 29th Amendment? ›

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

What was the 12th Amendment? ›

The Twelfth Amendment requires a person to receive a majority of the electoral votes for vice president for that person to be elected vice president by the Electoral College. If no candidate for vice president has a majority of the total votes, the Senate, with each senator having one vote, chooses the vice president.

What is the 27th Amendment in simple terms? ›

The Twenty-seventh Amendment (Amendment XXVII, also known as the Congressional Compensation Act of 1789) to the United States Constitution prohibits any law that increases or decreases the salary of members of Congress from taking effect until after the next election of the House of Representatives has occurred.

How does being a convicted of a felony in Texas impact your ability to vote quizlet? ›

In the state of Texas, what is the policy for felons right to vote? Felons are allowed to vote upon Full discharge of their sentences and complete his community service.

What does the Texas Constitution say about voting? ›

In all elections by the people, the vote shall be by ballot, and the Legislature shall provide for the numbering of tickets and make such other regulations as may be necessary to detect and punish fraud and preserve the purity of the ballot box; and the Legislature shall provide by law for the registration of all ...

Which term describes a restriction on the voting rights of convicted felons quizlet? ›

Felony disenfranchisement statistics: As of 2016, 6.1 million Americans were prohibited from voting due to laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felony offenses. Felony disenfranchisement rates vary by state, as states institute a wide range of disenfranchisement policies.

Can you vote if you are on probation in Texas? ›

You will be eligible to register to vote immediately after your release, even if you are on probation or parole. You are eligible to vote. You are eligible to vote, even if you were convicted of a felony in another state or in a federal court.

What is the single most controversial aspect of criminal justice and policing in Texas? ›

Police use of force is one of the most controversial aspects of law enforcement. Which of the following are recent issues concerning policing in Texas?

What does the US Constitution say about voting rights? ›

In the U.S., no one is required by law to vote in any local, state, or presidential election. According to the U.S. Constitution, voting is a right. Many constitutional amendments have been ratified since the first election. However, none of them made voting mandatory for U.S. citizens.

Why is the San Antonio vs Rodriguez case important quizlet? ›

Why is the San Antonio v Rodriguez case important? The U.S. Supreme Court found that Texas can use property taxes to fund public education.

What is Article 7 of the Texas Constitution? ›

A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.

What is one major difference between the U.S. and Texas Constitution? ›

The U.S. Constitution concentrates executive power in the president. The Texas Constitution creates a plural executive that shares executive power across multiple elected offices. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to veto specific items contained within budget appropriations bills passed by the legislature.

What is one of the main differences between the US Bill of Rights and the Texas Bill of Rights? ›

With its more positive tone the Texas Bill of Rights provides much the same protections as the U.S. Bill of Rights. But it also extends beyond federal protections. For example, Sec. 3a explicitly forbids discrimination based on sex, race, color, creed, or national origin.

Are convicted felons allowed to vote quizlet? ›

Noncitizens, convicted felons who have been released from prison, current prison inmates, election law violators, and mentally incompetent people are not allowed to vote in most states.

Is felon disenfranchisement unconstitutional? ›

Richardson v. Ramirez, 418 U.S. 24 (1974), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that held that convicted felons could be barred from voting without violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Such felony disenfranchisement is practiced in a number of U.S. states.

When did black men get the right to vote? ›

Passed by Congress February 26, 1869, and ratified February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African American men the right to vote.

Can a convicted felon run for public office in Texas? ›

(a-1) A person who has been convicted of a felony shall include in the application proof that the person is eligible for public office under Section 141.001(a)(4).

Can a felon vote in Wisconsin? ›

At the polling place, a person who registers to vote must sign a form indicating whether he or she has been convicted of a felony for which he or she has not been pardoned and, if so, whether he or she is incarcerated or on extended supervision, parole, or probation.

Which three types of factors influence the decisions of voters at the polls? ›

The three cleavage-based voting factors focused on in research are class, gender and religion. Firstly, religion is often a factor which influences one's party choice.


1. Could Ex-Felon Voting Rights Swing Florida In 2020?
2. ‘You Need Your Voting Power’: Florida’s Ex-Felons Fight For Their Voting Rights | NBC News
(NBC News)
3. Former felon voting rights: Ex-criminals face complex restrictions
(Al Jazeera English)
4. Felon Voting: Should Felons Be Allowed to Vote?
5. Should felons be allowed to vote?
(BEME News)
6. Restoration of Voting Rights: The Elimination of Felony Disenfranchisement
(ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice)
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