The 2020 election season offers an opportunity to increase public awareness about felony disenfranchisement laws to expand voter eligibility. During the era of mass incarceration the overall disenfranchisement rate increased substantially. In 1976, 1.17 million citizens were disenfranchised, dramatically increasing to 6.1 million people in 2016. In recent years, substantial reforms, including Florida’s Amendment 4 ending lifetime disenfranchisement for most justice-involved residents, have expanded the vote to millions of individuals.
Building Momentum to Unlock the Vote
Nearly 4.7 million of the disenfranchised population are not incarcerated but live in one of 31 states that prohibit voting by people on probation, parole, or who have completed their sentence. During 2019, three states expanded voting rights to persons under community supervision.
- Colorado lawmakers passed House Bill 1266 and expanded voting rights to nearly 11,500 residents on parole.
- Nevada lawmakers approved Assembly Bill 431, a measure that automatically restores the right to vote to any Nevada resident with a felony conviction released from prison regardless of offense type or parole or probation status. An estimated 77,000 Nevada residents will be affected by the policy change.
- New Jersey lawmakers expanded voting rights to 83,000 persons on felony probation and parole with the enactment of Assembly Bill 5823.
Other states are now are considering efforts to expand voting rights to persons on probation or parole:
- Connecticut lawmakers recently considered Senate Bill 233, a comprehensive voting measure that would expand voting rights to the nearly 3,000 residents sentenced to parole.
- Minnesota advocates recently rallied in support of voting rights for persons on community supervision.
- In Missouri, Senate Bill 542 would grow the franchise to 60,000 residents on probation and parole. State advocacy coalitions in several states are organizing similar efforts to expand the franchise.
Voting Builds Power
Nationally, millions of residents with criminal records are eligible to vote in 2020. Many are working with nonpartisan groups that harness their social and political interests. California’s A New Way of Life Reentry Project supports women transitioning from prison to the community. In addition to reentry support, a key priority is voter engagement among formerly incarcerated women and their families. The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC) provides a political home to justice-involved residents. Following their 2018 victory for Amendment 4, FRRC members continue to gather in support of voting rights and other designated priorities. Louisiana’s Voice of the Experienced (VOTE) has long anchored a broad-based agenda that includes housing rights, employment opportunities, and ballot access for persons with a criminal conviction history. The Maine State Prison chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. provides political education and lawmaker forums for incarcerated voters. The organization anchors a broad platform that includes expanding civil rights to sentencing reform.
Alabama – Advocates rallied to repeal the state’s habitual offender law.
Arizona – Policymakers consider House Bill 2808, legislation that scales back truth in sentencing from 85-percent to 65-percent time served for qualifying nonviolent offenses.
California – Los Angeles County cleared 66,000 prior marijuana convictions.
Colorado – The General Assembly voted to repeal the death penalty.
Florida – Senate advanced bill to allow judges to depart from mandatory minimums for certain offenses.
Kansas – Policymakers considered legislation to increase good time for certain incarcerated persons.
Missouri – Empower Missouri coordinated a Smart Sentencing Coalition advocacy day in support of several criminal justice reforms including House Bill 1468. The bill eases employment barriers for job applicants with criminal records.
Mississippi – Clergy for Prison Reform rallied to urge lawmakers to advance legislation addressing prison overcrowding.
Texas – Officials announce plans to close two state prisons due to the declining prison population.
Virginia – Gov. Ralph Northam signed legislation that makes all persons sentenced to lengthy prison terms as juveniles eligible for parole after 20 years.
West Virginia – Lawmakers advanced SB 620 which would authorize presumptive parole for qualifying nonviolent offenses.