Sep 16, 2008

Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

According to a common criminal justice aphorism, "If you do the crime, you'll do the time." In many states, however, the more accurate version of this aphorism is, "If you do the crime, you'll do the time -- and never vote again." In over 30 states, "ex-felon" is a label that bars people from voting even if they've fully paid their debt to society. Nationwide, over 4 million ex-felons have lost the right to vote. This is a lot of disenfranchised people in a country that has taken up arms and shortened lives in an effort to spread the blessings of liberty to less enlightened countries.

Since members of ethnic minority groups are over-represented in prison populations as compared to their numbers in the general population, the denial of voting rights to ex-felons has racial consequences. Estimates are that in some states, as many as 25% of African-American men of voting age are unable to vote because they are ex-felons.

State-to-state differences with respect to voting rights for ex-felons are an example of how much power states have to develop their own criminal justice practices. In Oregon and Utah, for example, felons can register to vote as soon as they are released from state custody -- even if they remain on parole or probation. In Washington state, by contrast, ex-felons can never vote. Thus, the happenstance of where people commit crimes can greatly alter their post-conviction rights.   

Community groups such as ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and The Western Prison Project are actively involved in efforts to restore voting rights to ex-felons, and their efforts are beginning to pay off. For example, a 2008 change in Florida law restored voting rights to more than 100,000 former felons.

Of course, the fact that greater numbers of ex-felons may be able to register to vote does not necessarily mean that they will. Laws granting voting rights to ex-felons are not self-executing. Ex-felons must be aware that they retain the right to vote and then must follow what may be complex registration requirements. Nevada, for example, recently restored voting rights to a limited number of ex-felons, but ex-felons who want to register to vote must petition the Nevada Board of Pardon and Parole to do so. Thus, community groups that hope to translate the right to vote into actual votes must work not only with state legislatures, but must find ways to inform ex-felons of their right to vote and then encourage them to register and show up at the polls.