Can Felons Vote in California Elections?
The short answer is yes, felons can vote in California, but there are some conditions.
In 2016, California's voting law changed. Then-Governor Jerry Brown signed California Assembly Bill AB2466, which changed various sections of California's Elections Code to define a person who could register -- and vote -- in this manner:
"(a) A person entitled to register to vote shall be a United States Citizen, a resident of California, not imprisoned or on parole for the conviction of a felony, and at least 18 years of age at the time of the next election." (emphasis added)
After the governor signed this bill, people sentenced to county jail — not prison — after being convicted of a felony crime gained the right to vote. People on probation, or who have completed their prison sentence and any associated parole, are also eligible to vote.
The following people cannot register and vote, according to the California Secretary of State:
- Those convicted of a felony crime who are currently imprisoned in a state or federal prison or serving out a state prison sentence in a county jail or correctional facility
- Those convicted of a felony crime currently in a county jail awaiting transfer to a state or federal prison
- Those currently on parole who were convicted of a felony offense, and those in county jail for a parole violation
Why It Matters: Voting Rights and Disenfranchisement
The people who serve in public office and craft our laws hold tremendous power over many aspects of our everyday lives. Sometimes those elected officials represent the views of a majority of their constituents, but sometimes they were elected to office by the slimmest majority of those voting -- and many people didn't vote.
In these close elections, every vote counts!
And yet many American citizens who would like to cast a vote cannot. According to The Sentencing Project, as of 2016, an estimated 6.1 million Americans were forbidden to vote (at least temporarily) because of a past or current felony criminal conviction.
That's about 2.5 percent of the eligible voting population.
African-Americans are overly-represented in this group of disenfranchised citizens (those deprived of the right to vote). Some 7.4% of African Americans cannot vote, many of them in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia.
State Differences in Voter Disenfranchisement
Given the importance of voting to the functioning of a democracy, one might think the U.S. Constitution would include voter safeguards and specify voter eligibility. In a broad sense, it does. Land-owning white men always had the right to vote. Black men gained the right to vote with the 15th Amendment. And women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment.
But when it comes to the details of who can be excluded from voting, that was left up to each state to decide. When it comes to the voting rights of felons, state laws vary widely. According to ProCon.org:
- Two states do not disenfranchise people convicted of felony crimes at any time. Citizens in Maine and Vermont can vote while in prison (as of 2019).
- In 17 states, people can regain their voting rights after completing their prison sentences.
- In nine states, a convicted felon may lose their voting rights permanently depending upon the type of crime and the severity of the offense for which they were convicted, whether it was a first or a repeat offense, the length of time since they completed their sentence, whether they have completed parole or probation and paid any outstanding fines.
In those states where a person could permanently lose their right to vote because of the seriousness of their felony conviction, the most common crimes are those below:
- Murder or manslaughter
- Rape, sex crimes with children, incest, and other felony sexual offenses
- Crimes against "public administration" such as bribery, improper influence, abuse of office, or treason
Mississippi has a much longer list of crimes resulting in disenfranchisement. California has no such list.
Regaining Your Right to Vote
In some states, a citizen's voting rights are restored automatically when they have completed their sentence and paid their fines. In other states, the person must petition for the restoration of their voting rights.
In California, citizens who are eligible to vote must re-register in order to regain their voting rights. You can do so by filling out a paper voter registration card or by re-registering online at RegisterToVote.ca.gov.
If a past criminal charge has kept you from voting and you believe that your voting rights should be restored, a California civil rights attorney may be able to help you.