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Expanding the Vote: Two Decades of Felony Disenfranchisement Reforms

October 17, 2018
Since 1997, 23 states have amended felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility.

Overview

cover with logoMore than 6 million citizens will be ineligible to vote in the midterm elections in November 2018 because of a felony conviction. Nearly 4.7 million of them are not incarcerated but live in one of 34 states that prohibit voting by people on probation, parole, or who have completed their sentence. Racial disparities in the criminal justice system also translate into higher rates of disenfranchisement in communities of color, resulting in one of every thirteen African American adults being ineligible to vote.

Despite these stark statistics, in recent years significant reforms in felony disenfranchisement policies have been achieved at the state level. Since 1997, 23 states have amended their felony disenfranchisement policies in an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility. These reforms include:

  • Seven states either repealed or amended lifetime disenfranchisement laws
  • Six states expanded voting rights to some or all persons under community supervision
  • Seventeen states eased the restoration process for persons seeking to have their right to vote restored after completing sentence

These policy changes represent national momentum for reform of restrictive voting rights laws. As a result of the reforms achieved during the period from 1997-2018, an estimated 1.4 million people have regained the right to vote. This report provides a state by state accounting of the changes to voting rights for people with felony convictions and measures its impact. These changes have come about through various mechanisms, including legislative reform, executive action, and a ballot initiative.

1.4 million people have regained the right to vote as a result of felony disenfranchisement reforms

Felony disenfranchisement policy reforms, 1997-2018
State Change # of people impacted
Alabama Streamlined restoration process (2003), established list of felony offenses that result in loss of
voting rights (2017)
76,000
California Restored voting rights to people on community supervision under Realignment (2014), restored
voting rights to people convicted of a felony offense housed in jail, but not in prison (2016)
95,000
Connecticut Restored voting rights to persons on felony probation (2001), repealed requirement to present
proof of restoration in order to register (2006)
33,000
Delaware Repealed lifetime disenfranchisement and replaced with five-year waiting period for most offenses
(2000), repealed five-year waiting period for most offenses (2016)
6,400
Florida Simplified clemency process (2004, 2007); adopted requirement for county jail officials to assist
with restoration (2006); reversed modification in clemency process (2011)
228,000
Hawaii Codified data sharing procedures for removal and restoration process (2006)
Iowa Restored voting rights post-sentence via executive order (2005); rescinded executive order
(2011); simplified application process (2016)
100,000
Kentucky Simplified restoration process (2001, 2008); restricted restoration process (2004, amended in
2008); restored voting rights post-sentence for nonviolent felony convictions via executive order
(2015); rescinded executive order (2015)
11,500
Louisiana Established notification of rights restoration process (2008), authorized voting for residents who
have not been incarcerated for five years including those on probation or parole (2017)
43,000
Maryland Repealed lifetime disenfranchisement (2002 & 2007), restored voting rights to persons on probation
and parole (2016)
92,000
Nebraska Repealed lifetime disenfranchisement, replaced with two-year waiting period (2005) 50,000
Nevada Repealed five-year waiting period to restore rights (2001), restored voting rights to persons
convicted of first-time nonviolent offense (2003), restored voting rights to people dishonorably
discharged from probation or parole, allowed people convicted of category B offenses to have
their rights restored after two-year waiting period (2017)
New Jersey Established procedures requiring state criminal justice agencies to notify persons of their voting
rights when released (2010)
New Mexico Repealed lifetime disenfranchisement (2001); streamlined restoration process and established
notification system (2005)
69,000
New York Required criminal justice agencies to provide voting rights information to persons who are again
eligible to vote after a felony conviction (2010); restored voting rights to persons on parole via
executive order (2018)
35,000
North Carolina Established process to notify people of their voting rights (2007)
Rhode Island Restored voting rights to persons on probation and parole (2006) 17,000
Tennessee Streamlined restoration process for most persons upon completion of sentence (2006)
Texas Repealed two-year waiting period after completion of sentence (1997) 317,000
Utah Clarified state law pertaining to federal and out-of-state convictions (2006)
Virginia Established notification of rights and restoration process (2000); streamlined restoration process
(2002); decreased waiting period for nonviolent offenses from three years to two years and
established a 60-day deadline to process voting rights restoration applications (2010); eliminated
waiting period and application for nonviolent offenses (2013); restored voting rights post-sentence
via executive order (2016)
188,000
Washington Restored voting rights for citizens who exit the criminal justice system but still have outstanding
financial obligations (2009)
Wyoming Allowed persons convicted of first-time nonviolent offenses to apply for rights restoration after
five year waiting period (2003); removed application process and waiting period for people
convicted of first-time nonviolent offenses (2015); automatically restored voting rights to people
convicted of all nonviolent offenses (2017)
5,400
Total 1,366,300

State Reforms

Alabama: 76,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2003- 2017

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 286,266 7.62%
Black Disenfranchised Population 143,924 15.11%

Alabama prohibits voting by people serving terms in prison, on probation or parole, and after completion of sentence for certain offenses.

In 2003, the Legislature passed Act 2003-415 to streamline the application process for a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote for people convicted of a nonviolent offense who had completed the terms of their sentence. The Board is required to issue a Certificate within 50 days of application, or to issue an explanation for denial within 45 days. Within its first year of passage, the number of voting rights restorations increased 79 percent,1)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. and between 2004-2015, 16,022 people had their voting rights restored.2)Uggen, C., Larson, R., and Shannon, S. (2016). 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Alabama’s Constitution strips voting rights from individuals convicted of a felony involving “moral turpitude.” However prior to 2017, the state had never provided a definitive list of such felonies; the decision of who was allowed to vote varied and was left to the discretion of local registrars. In 2017, Governor Kay Ivey signed the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, which clarified for the first time a list of 47 crimes that would result in the loss of voting rights. The list of disenfranchising felonies notably excludes low-level drug offenses like possession–the most common felony conviction in the state.3)Alabama Sentencing Commission, 2017 Report. Alabama officials estimated that the bill would affect 60,000 people.4)Astor, M. (2018). Seven Ways Alabama Has Made It Harder to Vote. New York Times.

California: 95,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2016

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 222,557 0.74%
Black Disenfranchised Population 63,390 3.41%

California law allows persons with a felony conviction on probation, but not in prison or on parole, to vote.

In 2011, the state’s Realignment Act shifted many people convicted of low-level felonies from overcrowded state prisons to local jails or community supervision. After the law passed, then- Secretary of State Debra Bowen instructed county election officials to extend the state’s voting ban to people on community supervision under Realignment. Civil rights groups sued the state, arguing that because individuals on community supervision report to county probation officers instead of state parole officers, they should be allowed to vote. In 2014, a Superior Court ruled Bowen’s interpretation of the Realignment Act as unconstitutional, and said that the intention of the law was to “introduce felons into the community, which is consistent with restoring their right to vote.” The state appealed the ruling. In 2015, Bowen’s successor, Alex Padilla, reversed Bowen’s order and dropped the case, restoring voting rights to 45,000 people on post-release community supervision.5)St. John, P. (2015). California could allow more felons to vote, in major shift. Los Angeles Times.

In another outgrowth of the state’s Realignment policy, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2466 into law in 2016,6)Assembly Bill No. 2466. California Legislative Information. restoring voting rights to as many as 50,000 people serving felony sentences in county jails.7)CBS SF Bay Area. (2016). Gov. Brown Signs Bill Giving Right To Vote To Thousands Of Felons.

Connecticut: 33,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2001-2006

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 17,345 0.61%
Black Disenfranchised Population 7,263 2.66%

Connecticut bans residents with a felony conviction in prison and on parole from voting. The state extended the right to vote to persons on probation for a felony conviction in 2001, although the language in the reform bill required “proof of eligibility.” By repealing the voting ban for people serving terms on probation, Connecticut restored the right to vote to more than 33,000 residents. Subsequently, in 2006, the state legislature repealed the requirement that persons seeking to register to vote must provide “written or satisfactory proof” of eligibility to be an elector. This removed potential complications that may arise in securing such proof and increased the likelihood that eligible residents with felony convictions would take advantage of their right to vote.8)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Delaware: 6,400 Voter Rights Restored, 2000

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 15,716 2.12%
Black Disenfranchised Population 8,113 5.35%

Delaware disenfranchises individuals with felony convictions in prison, on probation or parole, and after completion of sentence for certain felony offenses.

In 2000, Delaware amended its constitution to repeal lifetime disenfranchisement and permit most individuals convicted of a felony offense to apply to the Board of Elections for the restoration of voting rights five years after the completion of sentence. The law restricted persons with certain convictions (murder, manslaughter, sex offenses, or violations of the public trust) from voting unless they have received a pardon. This reform restored the right to vote to an estimated 6,400 individuals, or about one-third of the state’s disenfranchised population at the time.9)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. In 2013, the state passed the Hazel D. Plant Voter Restoration Act,10)House Bill 10. Delaware General Assembly. which removed the five- year waiting period and automatically restores voting rights to eligible persons who have completed their sentence (data on impact not available). Those convicted of disqualifying felony offenses are still permanently disenfranchised.

Florida: 228,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2004-2018

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 1,686,318 10.43%
Black Disenfranchised Population 499,306 21.35%

Florida disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions for life, unless they can secure clemency from the governor.

Since receiving national attention in the wake of controversy surrounding inaccurate voter purges in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, Florida took a number of steps to address one of the nation’s most restrictive disenfranchisement laws. In 2004, to alleviate a backlogged system in which tens of thousands of applications for rights restoration were on file, Florida Governor Jeb Bush amended the Rules of Executive Clemency to expedite the voting restoration process. Whereas previously individuals were required to appear at a hearing before the governor, the rule change allowed many persons to apply to vote without a hearing so long as they were not convicted of a violent crime and had remained arrest-free for five years. Persons convicted of all other offense types were required to complete a 15-year arrest-free period before becoming eligible to apply.11)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. Gov. Bush restored voting rights to 75,000 people during his eight years in office.12)Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board. (2018). Editorial: Reforming Florida’s unconstitutional process for restoring voting rights: Get on with it, Gov. Scott.12

In 2006, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring facilities to provide people in prison with rights restoration application information at least two weeks before their release date. This change was in response to the difficulties presented by Florida’s complex and confusing restoration process.

In 2007, Governor Charlie Crist and the Board of Executive Clemency voted to change the rules of clemency, thereby making the restoration of voting rights automatic for individuals convicted of certain, mostly nonviolent, offenses. Persons who had been convicted of more serious crimes, excluding some violent and sex crimes, became eligible to have their rights restored without a hearing before the Board. People convicted of offenses such as murder or sex crimes were required to either wait 15 years after the completion of sentence (during which time they must have remained crime-free) to apply without a hearing, or to petition the Board directly for a review and in-person hearing. During Crist’s four years in office he restored voting rights to more than 150,000 people.

After Governor Rick Scott took office in 2011, he amended the 2007 clemency rules so that all applications for rights restoration must be reviewed by the Clemency Board. The 2011 rules also added additional paperwork for each case, regardless of offense type. Applications for restoration of civil rights under Gov. Scott have dropped by nearly 95% from former Gov. Crist’s administration.13)Hammerschlag, A. (2016). Estimated 1.7 million Floridians lost right to vote. Naples Daily News. As of July 2018, Scott had restored voting rights to 3,000 people in seven years.14)Allen, G. (2018). Felons In Florida Want Their Voting Rights Back Without A Hassle. NPR.

Hawaii

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 6,364 0.57%
Black Disenfranchised Population 269 1.13%

Hawaii restores voting rights to individuals upon release from prison. Due to the manner in which corrections agencies shared data, many people who have been released from prison had been either incorrectly coded or had not been included in the eligible voter database. To correct this problem, in 2006 Hawaii passed legislation to improve data sharing between agencies and to require the clerk of the court to transmit an individual’s name, date of birth, address, and social security number to the person’s county within twenty days of release.15)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Iowa: 100,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2005

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 52,012 2.17%
Black Disenfranchised Population 6,879 9.84%

Iowa disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions for life, unless they can secure clemency from the governor.

Before 2005, Iowa had placed a lifetime voting restriction on anyone convicted of an “infamous crime.” The only mechanism in place to restore voting rights was a gubernatorial pardon. In 2005, Governor Tom Vilsack issued Executive Order 42, which immediately restored voting rights to all persons in the state who had completed their sentence and made the restoration process automatic for new persons completing their sentence.16)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. The executive order restored voting rights to an estimated 100,000 people.17)Foley, R. (2012). Few Iowa felons win restoration of voting rights. The Gazette.

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Governor Terry Branstad reversed Gov. Vilsack’s executive order, reverting the restoration process back to a case-by-case system. In 2016, Gov. Branstad simplified the rights restoration application, cutting the number of questions in half and removing a number of burdensome requirements.18)Rodgers, G. (2016). Process to restore felon voting rights to be streamlined. Des Moines Register.

Kentucky: 11,500 Voter Rights Restored, 2001-2018

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 312,046 9.14%
Black Disenfranchised Population 69,771 26.15%

Kentucky disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions for life, unless they can secure clemency from the governor.

Kentucky, like Florida, has one of the most restrictive laws regarding the loss of voting rights for a felony conviction and, like Florida, these laws have received significant public attention since 2000. In 2001, the Kentucky Legislature passed a bill to simplify the process of applying to the governor for rights restoration. The law required the Department of Corrections to inform individuals of their right to apply to the governor for the restoration of voting rights. In addition, the Department was directed to collect information regarding all eligible persons who have inquired about having their voting rights restored and to transmit that list to the governor’s office.

In 2004, Governor Ernie Fletcher issued an executive order that reversed some of the progress made toward easing the restoration process in 2001. The policy change required all applicants to submit a formal letter explaining why they believed their voting rights should be restored, in addition to supplying three letters of personal reference. Consequently, the number of people who had their rights restored under the Fletcher administration declined relative to prior governors. This policy was subsequently repealed in March 2008 by Governor Steve Beshear. The policy eliminated the requirements of a filing fee, personal statement, and letters of reference.19)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. Between 2008 and 2015, roughly 10,500 people had their voting rights restored.20)Uggen, C., Larson, R., and Shannon, S. (2016). 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. In November 2015, outgoing Gov. Beshear issued an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to over 100,000 people with nonviolent felony convictions who had completed their sentences. One month later, Governor Matt Bevin reversed the executive order.21)Lopez, G. (2015). Kentucky’s old governor gave thousands the right to vote. The new governor took it back. Vox. According to his office, Gov. Bevin has issued almost 1,000 restorations of civil rights since taking office.22)Email with Damon Preston, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, on October 1, 2018.

Louisiana: 43,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2018

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 108,035 3.04%
Black Disenfranchised Population 68,065 6.27%

Louisiana restricts voting rights for people in prison and individuals with felony convictions who have been incarcerated within the last five years.

In 2008, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the Department of Public Safety and Corrections to inform individuals who have completed their sentence of their right to vote and to provide assistance in registering to vote.23)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. In 2018, Governor John Bel Edwards signed House Bill 265 into law, restoring voting rights to anyone with a felony conviction who has not been incarcerated within the last five years, including individuals on probation or parole. The bill excludes residents convicted of felonies for election fraud or other election offenses.24)Louisiana House Bill 265. (2018). The new law will go into effect March 1, 2019 and will impact an estimated 40,000 people on probation and 3,000 people on parole.25)Voice of the Experienced. (2018). HB 265 is now a law! Find out who can now vote.

Maryland: 92,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2002-2016

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 21,465 0.46%
Black Disenfranchised Population 15,383 1.14%

Maryland allows individuals with felony convictions to vote upon completion of their prison sentence.

Maryland has experienced a number of changes in felony disenfranchisement policy in recent years. Prior to 2002, persons convicted of a first-time felony offense regained their voting rights after completion of sentence, but anyone with two or more convictions was disenfranchised for life. In 2002, Maryland amended the restoration process for persons convicted of two or more nonviolent crimes. Under that policy, persons convicted of a second nonviolent offense were automatically eligible to vote three years after the completion of sentence. Persons convicted of a violent offense were still required to apply to the governor for a pardon.

In 2007, the patchwork law regarding post-sentence disenfranchisement was replaced with automatic restoration for all persons upon completion of sentence. This reform resulted in the restoration of voting rights to more than 52,000 people.26)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

In 2016, the Maryland Assembly expanded voting rights for people on felony probation and parole with their override of Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of House Bill 980.27)HB0980. General Assembly of Maryland. The action restored voting rights to an estimated 40,000 people.28)Ford, M. (2016). Restoring Voting Rights for Felons in Maryland. The Atlantic.

Nebraska: 50,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2005

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 17,564 1.23%
Black Disenfranchised Population 3,540 5.60%

Nebraska requires residents to wait two years after completing their felony prison, probation or parole sentence to have their voting rights restored.

In 2004, the Vote Nebraska Initiative issued a final report with 16 recommendations designed to avoid electoral controversies such as those faced by Florida in 2000. Recommendation 10 called for automatic restoration of voting rights to persons with a felony conviction upon the completion of sentence. At the time, Nebraska prohibited all persons convicted of a felony from voting for life. During the subsequent legislative session, a bill to repeal the lifetime disenfranchisement provision was passed but included a 2-year waiting period after the completion of sentence for voting rights restoration. This law has restored the right to vote to an estimated 50,000 Nebraskans.29)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Nevada

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 89,267 4.02%
Black Disenfranchised Population 21,568 11.76%

Nevada disenfranchises people in prison, on probation or parole, and post-sentence except for those convicted of first-time nonviolent offenses.

Prior to 2001, Nevada prohibited all persons convicted of a felony from voting for life, absent a restoration by the Board of Pardons Commissioners or the sentencing court (in the case of probation). In 2001, the state eliminated waiting period requirements for persons to apply to have their voting rights restored and simplified the application process. Before this change, people released from probation had to wait six months to petition for the restoration of voting rights. All others had to wait five years from completion of sentence before applying for rights restoration. In 2003, the Nevada Assembly passed legislation that automatically restored the right to vote to any person convicted of a first-time, nonviolent offense upon completion of sentence.30)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. In 2017, the Assembly further revised the state’s disenfranchisement laws by passing Assembly Bill 181, which restored voting rights to people who receive a “dishonorable discharge” from probation or parole. The law also allows people convicted of certain “category B” crimes (offenses that carry a minimum of 1 year to a maximum of 20 years in prison) to have their rights restored after a two-year waiting period.31)Brennan Center for Justice. (2018). Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Nevada.

New Jersey

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 94,315 1.36%
Black Disenfranchised Population 47,470 5.28%

New Jersey restores voting rights to individuals upon completion of their prison, probation and or parole sentence.

In 2010, the New Jersey Assembly passed a comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms that included a requirement that state criminal justice agencies provide individuals exiting prison with general information regarding state law and their eligibility to vote.32)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

New Mexico: 69,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2001

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 24,286 1.53%
Black Disenfranchised Population 1,581 4.71%

New Mexico restores voting rights to persons with felony convictions upon completion of their prison, parole and probation sentence.

The state repealed its lifetime felony disenfranchisement law in 2001 by restoring the right to vote to all persons convicted of a felony upon completion of sentence. This returned the right to vote to nearly 69,000 residents. In order to make the restoration procedure easier, in 2005 the legislature implemented a notification process by which the Department of Corrections is required to issue a certificate of completion of sentence to an individual upon satisfaction of all obligations. The Department of Corrections is also required to notify the Secretary of State when such persons become eligible to vote.33)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

New York: 35,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2018

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 97,581 0.63%
Black Disenfranchised Population 46,286 2.03%

New York bans people with felony convictions in prison and on parole from voting.

In 2010, the New York legislature required criminal justice agencies to notify persons exiting criminal justice supervision that they have the right to vote. Individuals released from prison or discharged from parole have their voting rights automatically restored and only need to complete a voter registration card in order to participate in the next election. A formal notice provision was necessary because according to reports, New York election officials regularly misapplied the law and some reportedly required persons to provide unnecessary paperwork in order to register to vote. Researchers found in 2005 that nearly 30% of people with prior criminal convictions incorrectly believed they were ineligible to vote.34)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

In 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order to grant voting rights to 35,000 people under parole supervision. The executive order offers conditional pardons to people on parole, but the pardons will not erase their conviction or any other conditions of their parole. Gov. Cuomo said that he will continue to issue conditional pardons to new people who enter the parole system while in office.35)Abramsky, S. (2018). At Long Last, Andrew Cuomo Restores the Vote for New York Parolees. The Nation.

North Carolina

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 91,179 1.18%
Black Disenfranchised Population 42,905 2.63%

North Carolina prohibits all persons convicted of a felony conviction in prison, on probation or parole from voting.

The right to vote is automatically restored upon completion of sentence and individuals can register to vote after filing a certificate demonstrating unconditional discharge with the county of conviction or residence. As in many other states, there has been concern that confusion about eligibility requirements and restoration procedures may be preventing some persons from registering to vote. In 2007, the legislature passed a bill requiring the State Board of Elections, the Department of Corrections, and the Administrative Office of the Courts to establish and implement a program whereby individuals are informed of their eligibility to vote and instructed regarding the steps they must take in order to register.36)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Rhode Island: 17,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2006

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 3,355 0.40%
Black Disenfranchised Population 963 2.03%

Rhode Island allows individuals with felony convictions to vote upon release from prison.

Prior to 2006, Rhode Island was the only state in New England with felony disenfranchisement laws extending to persons on both probation and parole. In November 2006, voters in the state approved a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution and extend voting rights to persons on probation and parole. The new law restored the right to vote to more than 17,000 residents. According to the Rhode Island Family Life Center, 36% of the citizens reenfranchised in 2006 participated in the 2008 election.37)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Tennessee

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 421,227 8.26%
Black Disenfranchised Population 173,895 21.27%

Tennessee prohibits voting for people in prison, probation and or parole, and post-sentence for people convicted of felony offenses since 1981, in addition to those convicted of select offenses prior to 1973. Individuals convicted of a felony between 1973-1981 never lost their voting rights.

In 2006, Tennessee passed legislation that simplified the nation’s most complex and confusing disenfranchisement laws. Prior to 2006, eligibility and the process of restoration varied significantly based on the type of offense and the date of conviction. Under the new law, persons convicted of certain felonies after 1981 can apply for voting rights restoration directly with the Board of Probation and Parole upon sentence completion. However, the new law requires that all outstanding legal financial obligations, including child support, must be paid before voting rights will be restored.38)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Texas: 317,000 Voter Rights Restored, 1997

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 495,928 2.45%
Black Disenfranchised Population 147,727 6.17%

Texas restores voting rights to persons with felony convictions upon completion of their prison, parole and probation sentence.

Texas has been incrementally reforming its felony disenfranchisement laws since 1983. In that year the state repealed its lifetime prohibition against voting for persons with a felony conviction, replacing it with a five-year post-sentence waiting period,39)Sennott, C., & Galliher, J. (2006). Lifetime Felony Disenfranchisement in Florida, Texas, and Iowa: Symbolic and Instrumental Law. Social Justice, 33(1 (103, 79-94.)) which was subsequently reduced to a two-year waiting period in 1985. In 1997, under Governor George W. Bush, Texas eliminated the 2-year waiting period and adopted a policy of automatically restoring voting rights at the completion of sentence. The legislation restored the right to vote to an estimated 317,000 individuals.40)Uggen, C., Manza, J., Thompson, M., & Wakefield, S. (2003). Impact of Recent Legal Changes in Felon Voting Rights in Five States. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Utah

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 7,669 0.37%
Black Disenfranchised Population 724 3.18%

Utah automatically restores the right to vote to individuals upon completion of their prison sentence. Until 1998, Utah was one of four states where all persons with a felony conviction, including those in prison, were permitted to vote. However, a 1998 public referendum resulted in a constitutional prohibition on voting for persons in prison serving a felony sentence. Voting rights are automatically restored upon release from prison. However, due to a quirk in the wording of the law, those convicted out-of-state but residing in Utah were restricted from voting for life. In 2006, the Utah General Assembly corrected this oversight and now restore voting rights to all individuals upon completion of their prison sentence.41)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Virginia: 188,000 Voter Rights Restored, 2002-2018

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 508,680 7.81%
Black Disenfranchised Population 271,944 21.90%

The Virginia Constitution disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions for life.

There have been a number of policy developments since 2000 that have expanded voting rights to a growing number of Virginia residents. In 2000, Virginia passed a bill requiring the Department of Corrections to notify individuals under its jurisdiction about the loss of voting rights and the process of applying for restoration.

Upon taking office in 2002, Governor Mark Warner streamlined the process of applying for a gubernatorial restoration of rights. He reduced the necessary paperwork from 13 pages to 1 for most persons convicted of a nonviolent offense and decreased the waiting period to apply to three years. The prior requirement of three letters of reference was also rescinded. In his four years in office, Governor Warner restored the voting rights of 3,500 Virginians, exceeding the combined total of all governors between 1982 and 2002. His successor, Governor Tim Kaine, continued this commitment to rights restoration, granting voting rights to more than 4,300 persons while in office.

During 2010, Governor Bob McDonnell streamlined the voter restoration process for individuals with felony convictions by decreasing the waiting period from three years to two years. McDonnell also established a 60-day deadline for processing civil rights restoration applications after receiving corroborating information from courts and other agencies. These reforms reversed McDonnell’s initial restoration procedures that would have required applicants to write a letter to explain why they wanted their voting rights restored. The process encouraged applicants to offer a “brief description of civic or community involvement,” although it was not a requirement.42)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. In 2013, McDonnell used executive authority to remove the waiting period and application process and to automatically restore voting rights to individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses who had completed their sentence and paid all fines and restitution.43)Israel, J. (2013). Virginia Governor Automatically Restores Voting Rights To Nonviolent Felons. ThinkProgress. During his four years in office, McDonnell restored voting rights to nearly 7,000 Virginians.44)Richmond Times-Dispatch. (2013). McDonnell says state has restored rights of record 6,800 felons.

In 2016, Governor Terry McAuliffe used his clemency power to restore voting rights to approximately 200,000 Virginians who had completed their sentences. This action was challenged in the state Supreme Court, which ruled that rights restoration needed to be undertaken on an individual basis, and not across the board. Gov. McAuliffe subsequently restored rights to over 173,000 people in this manner. Virginia’s disenfranchisement policy remains unchanged, and the state constitution still disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions post-sentence.45)Associated Press. (2018). Outgoing Va. Gov. McAuliffe says rights restoration his proudest achievement.

Washington

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 48,552 0.87%
Black Disenfranchised Population 7,987 3.71%

Washington prohibits all persons convicted of a felony in prison, on probation or parole from voting.

In 2009, Governor Christine Gregoire signed a bill that eliminated the requirement of paying all fines, fees, and restitution before regaining the right to vote. Previously, persons who had completed their term of probation or parole but who had not paid fees and costs associated with their sentence had been barred from voting. This provision was compounded by the fact that interest on these legal system debts accrued at 12% a year. Many indigent felony defendants could never fully pay off their legal system debts – and as a result never had their voting rights restored. Under the new law, persons remain obligated to repay their debts, but will not be denied the right to vote.46)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Wyoming: 5,400 Voter Rights Restored, 2003-2017

Disenfranchised Population, 2016
Total % Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised Population 23,847 5.33%
Black Disenfranchised Population 966 17.18%

Wyoming restores the right to vote only to those convicted of nonviolent felony offenses who have completed their sentence.

In 2003, Wyoming revised its lifetime felony disenfranchisement law by authorizing persons convicted of a first-time, nonviolent felony to apply to the Wyoming Board of Parole for a certificate that restores voting rights. Applicants were required to wait for a period of five years after completing their sentence in order to be eligible to apply.47)Porter, N. (2010). Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 2010. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. Between 2003 and 2014, 82 people applied and had their voting rights restored.48)Hancock, L. (2014). Wyoming committee studies restoring voting rights to felons. Star-Tribune.

In 2015, Wyoming eliminated the application process and the five-year waiting period, and authorized automatic rights restoration for persons convicted of first-time, nonviolent felony convictions who complete their sentence. Individuals convicted prior to 2016 and those with out-of-state and federal convictions were still required to apply for a restoration of rights upon completion of their sentence.49)Porter, N. (2016). The State of Sentencing 2015: Developments in Policy and Practice. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC. At the time of the bill’s passage it was estimated that 4,200 persons with nonviolent convictions between 2000-2011 would have been eligible to apply for rights restoration.50)Neary, B. (2014). Wyoming considers allowing some felons to vote. Associated Press.

Subsequently, in 2017, the state passed House Bill 75 to expand voting rights to individuals convicted of any nonviolent felony offense. For individuals convicted within Wyoming who have completed their full sentence on or after January 1, 2010, the Department of Corrections will automatically issue a certificate of restoration of voting rights. Individuals convicted of a nonviolent felony offense before January 1, 2010, or those convicted outside of Wyoming, or under federal law are required to submit a written request to the department. The person will then be issued a certificate of restoration of voting rights if the individual is deemed eligible.51)Wyoming House Bill 75. (2017). While the total estimated impact of the bill is unknown, an analysis by the Department of Corrections shows in 2013 alone, 1,178 people with nonviolent felony convictions had completed their sentence.52)Learned, N. (2017). Wyoming House Passes Bill Which Would Automatically Restore Voting Rights of Some Nonviolent Felons. K2 Radio.

Executive Actions

While executive orders do not permanently reform state disenfranchisement policies, governors across the country have issued orders to restore voting rights to hundreds of thousands of people. Listed below are examples of the impact executive actions can have on restoring the right to vote. Several of these orders were revoked by subsequent governors.

  • Between 2007-2011, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist restored voting rights to more than 150,000 people during his four years in office by automatically restoring rights to individuals convicted of predominantly nonviolent offenses. (Revoked in 2011, but not retroactively.)
  • In 2005, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack automatically restored voting rights to all individuals who had completed their sentence, impacting an estimated 100,000 people. (Revoked in 2011, but not retroactively.)
  • In 2015, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to over 100,000 people with nonviolent felony convictions who had completed their sentences. (Revoked 2015)
  • In 2018, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued conditional pardons to people on parole, restoring voting rights to 35,000 people under parole supervision.
  • Between 2016-2018, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe individually restored voting rights to over 173,000 people who had completed their full sentence.

Appendix

Summary of State Felony Disfranchisement Restrictions in 2018
No restrictions (2) Prison only (14) Prison & Parole (4) Prison, parole, & probation (18) Prison, parole, probation, & post-sentence (12)
Maine Hawaii California Alaska Alabama
Vermont Illinois Colorado Arkansas Arizona
Indiana Connecticut Georgia Delaware
Massachusetts New York Idaho Florida
Maryland Kansas Iowa
Michigan Louisiana Kentucky
Montana Minnesota Mississippi
New Hampshire Missouri Nebraska
North Dakota New Jersey Nevada
Ohio New Mexico Tennessee
Oregon North Carolina Virginia
Pennsylvania Oklahoma Wyoming
Rhode Island South Carolina
Utah South Dakota
Texas
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin
Source: Uggen, C., Larson, R., and Shannon, S. (2016). 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016. The Sentencing Project, Washington DC.

Click here for state estimates of disenfranchised individuals with felony convictions.

Click here for state estimates of disenfranchised African Americans with felony convictions.

 

Footnotes   [ + ]

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