Restoring Voter Rights for Felons
Traditionally, when a person is convicted of a felony in the United States, they lose their right to vote. The loss of voting rights can be permanent or temporary depending on state law. Most states have some sort of procedure to return voting privileges to felons, but not all. This article discusses felony disenfranchisement and the ways that a felon's voting rights can be restored.
What Is Disenfranchisement of the Right to Vote
Disenfranchisement happens when the government takes away someone's right to vote. Typically, we see this in the United States when someone is convicted of a felony crime. This is any felony no matter how minor the offense, and even if no prison time was served. Persons convicted of misdemeanors do not lose their right to vote.
Is Restricting Voting Rights for Felons Constitutional?
The right to vote is a state issue. States were free to exclude anyone they wanted to from voting and they did. It was not until after the Civil War that the federal government stepped in to force states to guarantee voting rights regardless of race, color, or sex — and eventually the right of eighteen-year-olds to vote — by amending the Constitution.
There are no such guarantees in the U.S. Constitution for persons convicted of crimes. In fact, prior to the 1974 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Richardson v. Ramierz, the courts had not determined the constitutionality of states restricting voting rights. The Richardson court held that the Fourteenth Amendment allowed states to restrict voting rights to persons for "participation in rebellion, or other crime."
Restoring Voting Rights for Felons
Whether a person with a felony conviction is permanently barred from voting is determined on a state-by-state basis. Restoring the voting rights of felons has had an uneven history. Over the years, states have loosened the restrictions only to reinstate them later.
Almost all states prohibit felons from voting, but most reinstate the voting privileges at some point. States vary in how they handle restoring a felon's voting rights and typically fall into three categories:
- Felons don't lose the right to vote
- Automatic reinstatement
- Conditional reinstatement
Never lose the right to vote: There are two states (Maine and Vermont) where felons never lose their voting rights. They are able to vote even from a prison cell.
Automatic reinstatement: The majority of states allow automatic restoration of voting rights after a felon completes their sentence. Automatic reinstatement often happens after the release from prison, but some states require not only the release from prison, but the completion of parole or probation.
Check with your state's voter registration office for when you may be automatically reinstated to vote. You will need to re-register to vote.
Conditional reinstatement: A few states have conditional requirements for reinstating felony voting rights. In some cases, disenfranchisement is permanent.
The following is the listing of states that a different set of rules for felony voting reinstatement:
- A person convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude may not vote in any election until after unconditional discharge. Re-registration is required.
- Alabama citizens lose the right to vote upon conviction of a felony involving moral turpitude. Voting rights may be restored for all offenses except treason or impeachment if there has been a pardon or they have received a certificate of eligibility
- Persons convicted of a disqualifying felony may not register to vote unless they have been pardoned. Disqualifying felonies include murder or manslaughter, sexual offenses, bribery, improper influence, or abuse of office.
- The voting rights of a person convicted of a felony are canceled and may only be restored by application to the Governor's office.
- A person may not vote if convicted of a disqualifying crime. Voting rights can be restored by a pardon, an application to the governor for an executive order to restore civil rights, or by an individual Bill of Suffrage passed by the legislature.
- Eligibility to vote depends on the type of crime and date of conviction. Voting rights may be restored if a conviction is expunged. However, for certain offenses, there is permanent disenfranchisement. The type of offense that is ineligible depends on the date of conviction
- First-time offenders of non-violent felonies automatically have their voting rights restored upon release from incarceration and/or parole or probation. Individuals who completed their sentences prior to 2010 are required to apply for the restoration of voting rights. Individuals with violent or repeated felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised.
- The Kentucky Constitution provides that persons convicted of a felony, or bribery in an election, or of such high misdemeanor as the General Assembly may declare are permanently excluded from voting. Voting rights may be restored by executive pardon.
Learn about your state on our page on felon voting laws by state.
Need Help Restoring Your Voting Rights After a Felony?
Just because you committed a felony does not mean that you can never vote again. You may be able to restore your rights and it might be easier than you think. Contact your state voter registration office to determine your eligibility status. Consider working with a local civil rights attorney who can explain the process and help you get your right to vote back.