Press Release

New Report: United States a Global Outlier in Denying Voting Rights Due to Criminal Convictions

The Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) today released a new report, “Out of Step: U.S. Policy on Voting Rights in Global Perspective.

Related to: Voting Rights

WASHINGTON — The Sentencing Project, Human Rights Watch, and the American Civil Liberties Union (“ACLU”) today released a new report, “Out of Step: U.S. Policy on Voting Rights in Global Perspective,” revealing that the United States is out of step with the rest of the world in disenfranchising large numbers of citizens based on criminal convictions.

As of 2022, over 4.4 million people in the United States were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, and thousands more eligible voters were unable to cast their ballot due to their incarceration status.

The report examines the laws of 136 countries around the world with populations of 1.5 million and above, and finds that the majority — 73 of the 136 — never or rarely deny a person’s right to vote because of a criminal conviction. In the other 63 countries, where some laws deny the right to vote in broader sets of circumstances, the United States sits at the top of the restrictive end of the spectrum, disenfranchising a wider swath of people overall.

“Wide access to voting is a cornerstone of rights-respecting, democratic government, which is why the right to vote is protected in international human rights law and why the U.S. should reform its outlier status on voting rights,” said Alison Leal Parker, deputy US director at Human Rights Watch. “The right to vote, and the legitimacy of the democratic system in the United States should not depend on its criminal legal system, which is built upon and perpetuates discrimination.”

The report also finds that in recent years, some jurisdictions within the United States have taken steps to re-enfranchise individuals who lost their voting rights due to a criminal conviction. For example, most U.S. states no longer disenfranchise individuals permanently for life and many no longer disenfranchise individuals upon release from incarceration. The trend toward greater enfranchisement of people with prior criminal legal justice system involvement is global. For example, in 2014, Egypt repealed a sweeping law imposing a ban on voting, without time limits, on every person convicted of an offense.

“In recent years, we’ve seen many U.S. jurisdictions and other countries begin to re-enfranchise people with prior criminal legal system involvement. This progress is promising, but there’s still much work to be done,” said Nicole D. Porter, senior director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project. “In this report, we recommend that the United States end felony disenfranchisement and extend voting rights to all otherwise voting-eligible persons, regardless of their history with the criminal legal system. We also recommend that localities establish polling centers or otherwise effectively facilitate voting in all correctional facilities — something we’ve seen in Cook County (Chicago, Illinois), Harris County (Houston, Texas), and the District of Columbia.”

The report also notes that, despite advances in legal eligibility to vote, substantial practical obstacles remain to voting access for returning citizens.

“Even as we’ve seen more U.S. states make progress in expanding rights restoration, there remain substantial challenges to voter access,” said Jonathan Topaz, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “For example, convoluted rights restoration laws have resulted in voter confusion about eligibility among returning citizens. Additionally, in many states, returning citizens become eligible to vote only upon payment of various legal financial obligations such as fees, costs, fines, and/or restitution, which essentially institutes a pay-to-vote system. These obstacles must be abolished to ensure full civic participation.”

The full report is available here

About The Sentencing Project:
The Sentencing Project advocates for effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.

About the US Program of Human Rights Watch:
The US Program of Human Rights Watch investigates and exposes human rights violations committed in the US, centering the guidance of the most impacted communities, advocating to ensure racial justice and equity with a particular focus on immigration, the criminal legal system, and advancing democracy.

About the ACLU:
For more than 100 years, the ACLU has worked in courts, legislatures, and communities to protect the constitutional rights of all people. With a nationwide network of offices and millions of members and supporters, the ACLU takes on the toughest civil liberties fights in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

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