The Sustained Momentum and Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Voting Rights Restoration

The momentum for voting rights restoration is reflected in both the wave of reforms that have spread throughout the United States in recent years, and the growing number of supporters who see reform as common sense.

July 6, 2015

Currently, more than 4 million Americans living and working in their communities are unable to vote because of a felony conviction in their past.[1] Antiquated laws continue to deny citizens a stake in their communities, and the population as a whole loses out on the benefits that come from more civically engaged citizens. But the continued challenge does not diminish the real progress the United States has made this century. More people with criminal convictions in their past are able to vote today, and in more states, than they could 20 years ago — and efforts continue at both the state and federal levels to grow that number still. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action (legislative or executive) to allow more people with past criminal convictions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily.[2] That includes reforms in six states over the past five years.[3] In 2015, one bill was signed into law in Wyoming,[4] and reform bills moved in at least three additional states.[5]

One key factor in this progress is the growing bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform, and the recognition that restoring voting rights is a smart-on-crime policy. Leaders of both parties are acknowledging that we imprison too many people for too long, and do not provide adequate opportunities for people to reintegrate into society — rather than recidivate — after they leave incarceration.[6]  That recognition has led law enforcement professionals, faith leaders, and public officials from across the political spectrum to endorse voting rights restoration proposals nationwide.

The momentum for voting rights restoration is reflected in both the wave of reforms that have spread throughout the United States in recent years, and the growing number of supporters who see reform as common sense.

The Steady Wave of Reform

The nation’s felony disenfranchisement laws range from lifetime bans on voting for people with felony convictions in three states (Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky) unless a pardon can be obtained, to laws in two states that allow people to vote while serving their term of incarceration (Maine and Vermont). The remaining states exercise a range of policies,[7] many of which have changed in recent years to restore the right to vote to more Americans with past criminal convictions. The recent wave of reform has extended access to the vote to people with criminal convictions through both legislative and executive action, and through a variety of policy changes in more than 20 states.

Rhode Island Restores Voting Rights to Citizens Living in their Community, and Additional States Restore Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands More

Rhode Island implemented the nation’s most extensive recent reform. In 2006, voters approved a ballot measure that allowed citizens to vote when released from prison, or who were never incarcerated in the first place.[8] Additionally, since 2000, three states have fully lifted lifetime bans on voting by citizens with past criminal convictions and now automatically restore the right to vote when a person has completed their sentence, including parole and probation. Together, the legislative efforts to end lifetime felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico (2001),[9] Nebraska (2005),[10] and Maryland (2007)[11] restored the right to vote for more than 160,000 citizens.[12]

For a time, Iowa ended its lifetime ban and automatically restored voting rights for those who completed their sentences. In 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order that allowed approximately 80,000 citizens to vote.[13] A later governor, Terry Branstad, reversed this action,[14] and the state is once again one of three, with Florida and Kentucky, where only the governor can restore a citizen’s voting rights.

Numerous States Have Restored Voting Rights to Some Citizens Living in the Community

Some states selectively restore voting rights to certain citizens in the community. For example, in 2001, Connecticut extended voting rights to citizens on probation, making it one of four states that make a distinction between the voting rights of probationers and parolees. Five states since 2000 have taken action to selectively expand automatic voting rights restoration to those with certain convictions.[15] While these distinctions can impose administrative costs and lead to confusion among both election officials and the general public, the expansion of voting rights restoration remains a positive development for both states and those who qualify for rights restoration.

Additionally, for several years, people with most felony convictions in Florida (2007) automatically had their voting rights restored after completion of sentence under clemency rules established by then-Gov. Charlie Crist.[16] But Crist’s successor, Gov. Rick Scott, revoked this policy, and citizens with past criminal convictions must again not only apply for rights restoration, but wait years to do so.[17] Florida’s 1.5 million disenfranchised citizens make up more than 10 percent of the state’s voting-age population.[18]

In addition to the many states that have expanded their population of eligible voters by reforming their felony disenfranchisement laws, 10 further states have streamlined or otherwise eased their voting rights restoration procedures.[19] A small group of states also continues to require people who complete their sentences to wait a set period of time before having their voting rights restored or being able to apply to do so, but recent changes to state law have made this much less common.[20]

The Growing Bipartisan Consensus on Criminal Justice Reform

The wave of voting rights restoration reform has taken place amid shifting attitudes toward sentencing, corrections, and the treatment of people with criminal convictions in their past. Returning citizens face enormous obstacles reintegrating into society, and Americans increasingly understand that successful reintegration is crucial for strong communities and public safety. States around the country have passed reforms to expand re-entry opportunities,[21] including “ban the box” policies that facilitate employment,[22] increased funding of prison education and vocational training, substance abuse treatment programs, and community-based programs as alternatives to prison.[23] These reforms are linking unlikely allies — as in one prominent coalition, funded in part by the Koch Institute, which brings progressive organizations like the ACLU and Center for American Progress together with conservative groups like Americans for Tax Reform.[24] This growing consensus on criminal justice reform is also feeding the support for voting rights restoration.

Voting Rights Restoration is Gaining Traction as a Smart-on-Crime Reform

Restoring voting rights is an important part of the smart-on-crime movement. Leading law enforcement groups have long known that allowing people who have served their time to have a voice and a stake in their community can be a valuable component of successful rehabilitation. As a result, state and federal legislation has been supported by national law enforcement groups such as the American Parole and Probation Association, the Association of Paroling Authorities International, and the National Black Police Association.[25]

Law enforcement professionals increasingly support voting rights restoration because they have concluded that continuing to disenfranchise people with criminal convictions in their past can be counterproductive from a public-safety standpoint. As explained by the executive director of the American Parole and Probation Association, “withholding the fundamental right to vote does nothing to help [the re-entry process]. Keeping that barrier in place makes our job harder.”[26] Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, who became a criminal justice reform advocate after being sentenced to time in prison, has also argued that the “criminal justice system contradicts its own mission statement” when it professes to rehabilitate citizens while preventing them from rejoining society as full and productive citizens.[27]

Recent studies vindicate the experience of law enforcement professionals who support rights restoration by demonstrating its public safety benefits. One study found “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrests, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior.”[28] A study by the Florida Parole Commission found the recidivism rate of Floridians with criminal convictions whose voting rights were restored was one-third the rate of those who remained unable to vote.[29]

Support for Voting Rights Restoration Comes from Across the Political Spectrum

Members of law enforcement are being joined by leaders in the business and faith communities to urge conservatives to support restoring voting rights. A spokesperson for Koch Industries, which has been a major supporter of criminal justice reform,[30] said the Koch brothers support the idea that people convicted of certain offenses should have their voting rights restored.[31] Other supporters include faith leaders like the late Chuck Colson, a former special counsel to President Nixon, who was himself imprisoned before founding Prison Fellowship Ministries and becoming an evangelical leader and advocate for criminal justice reform. And public officials who have implemented or endorsed reform include President George W. Bush, who signed a law to restore voting rights to people with criminal convictions after completion of their sentence while governor of Texas,[32] and more recently, Sens. Rick Santorum,[33] Lindsey Graham, John McCain, and Orrin Hatch, all of whom have expressed support for restoring voting rights to at least some people who have served their sentences.[34]

In fact, in recent years, Republicans and Democrats have come together on several occasions in attempts to reform state and national policies. Sens. Rand Paul and Ben Cardin have spoken jointly about the need for federal legislation to restore voting rights and have introduced competing bills in the Senate.[35] In Virginia, Gov. Robert McDonnell took executive action in 2013 to streamline the rights restoration process for many people with non-violent felony convictions. The following year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe classified additional crimes as non-violent and shortened the waiting period for people with convictions classified as violent.[36] In Wyoming, a bill that automatically restores voting rights to citizens with non-violent felony convictions passed through its Republican-controlled legislature and was signed into law in 2015.[37] In Kentucky, every Democrat and a majority of Republicans in the state House voted in favor of legislation to allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to most people after they have served their sentence.[38] That legislation passed the Kentucky House but not the Senate, where Sen. Paul has previously provided testimony in support of its passage.[39] In Maryland, a bill to restore voting rights upon release from incarceration received some bipartisan support while in committee in both the General Assembly and the Senate.[40] The bill was ultimately vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, but the legislature will have a chance to override his veto next session. In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee, co-authored a bill to automatically restore voting rights upon release from incarceration, and a fellow Republican sponsor, Rep. Joe McDonald, explained that this was an issue in which “it really doesn’t matter if we’re conservative or liberal. It’s the right thing to do.”[41]

***

As attitudes toward criminal justice change, such views will increasingly carry the day with state and federal legislators as well as the public. A February 2014 survey found 65 percent of likely voters nationwide believe people convicted of a felony should regain their right to vote after serving their sentence problem-free, compared with only 23 percent who disagree.[42] That squares with the progress seen in over 20 states in recent years, and helps to further sustain that momentum.

These changing attitudes are creating new opportunities to ensure that all Americans have a stake in their community and a voice in our democracy.


[1] Restoring Voting Rights, Brennan Center for Justice, https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/restoring-voting-rights.

[2] Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming. Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States, Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/RTV%20Map%2010%2016%2013.pdf.

[3] See 79 Del. Laws 34 (2013) (constitutional amendment in Delaware to remove five-year waiting period for persons with certain felony convictions to have their voting rights automatically restored); 2009 N.J. Laws 329 (New Jersey legislation to require agencies to notify citizens of voting rights upon eligibility); 2010 N.Y. Laws 56 (New York legislation to require agencies to notify citizens of voting rights upon eligibility); H.B. 15, 63rd Leg., Gen. Sess. (Wyo. 2015) (Wyoming legislation to eliminate application process for certain persons with first-time felony convictions classified as non-violent); Branstad, Reynolds Streamline Restoration of Voting Rights Application, Office of the Governor of Iowa (Dec. 28, 2012), https://governor.iowa.gov/2012/12/branstad-reynolds-streamline-restoration-of-voting-rights-application (2012 executive action in to simplify application process); Restoration of Rights, Secretary of the Commonwealth (Virginia), https://commonwealth.virginia.gov/judicial-system/restoration-of-rights/ (2013 and 2014 executive actions in Virginia to establish automatic voting rights restoration for citizens with felony convictions classified as non-violent).

[4] H.B. 15, 63rd Leg., Gen. Sess. (Wyo. 2015) (legislation to eliminate application process for certain persons with first-time felony convictions classified as non-violent).

[5] H.B. 70, 2015 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Ky. 2015) (Kentucky legislation that would trigger public vote on constitutional amendment providing for rights restoration upon completion of sentence); S.B. 340, 2015 Leg., Reg. Sess. (Md. 2015); H.B. 980, 2015 Leg. Reg. Sess. (Md. 2015) (Maryland legislation that would restore right to vote to citizens on probation and parole); S.F. 878, 89th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Minn. 2015) (Minnesota legislation that would restore right to vote to citizens on probation and parole).

[6] For a survey of proposals to reform the criminal justice system from prominent leaders from across the political spectrum, see Brennan Center for Justice, Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice (Inimai Chettiar & Michael Waldman eds., 2015).  

[7] Currently, eight states impose lifetime disenfranchisement for at least some people with criminal convictions, unless the government approves individual rights restoration (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming). Another twenty states restore the right to vote only after a person completes parole or probation (Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska (with two-year waiting period), New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin). Four states allow citizens on probation to vote, but not those on parole (California, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York). Thirteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights upon a citizen’s release from prison (Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington, D.C.). See Criminal Disenfranchisement Laws Across the United States, supra note 2.

[8] 2006 R.I. Pub. Laws 366.

[9] 2001 N.M. Laws 46.

[10] 2005 Neb. Laws 53. In Nebraska’s case, voting rights are automatically restored two years after completion of sentence. Neb. Rev. Stat. § 32-313.

[11] 2007 Md. Laws 159.

[12] See Nicole D. Porter, Sentencing Project, Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2010 2 (2010), available at http://www.sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/publications/vr_ExpandingtheVoteFinalAddendum.pdf

[13] Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Iowa, Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-restoration-efforts-iowa.

[14] Exec. Order No. 70 (2011) (Branstad) (executive order reversing Vilsack rights restoration policy), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/IA%206%20Executive%20Order.pdf.

[15] In Delaware (2000, 2013), people with most felony convictions qualify for automatic rights restoration, while one’s eligibility in Nevada (2003), Wyoming (2003 and 2015), and Virginia (2013 and 2014) depends at least in part on whether the state classifies their felony conviction as non-violent. See Del. Const. art. V § 2; 2003 Nev. Stat. 447; Wyoming H.B. 15; Restoration of Rights, supra note 3. Virginia’s recent revisions to its policy are especially notable— in 2013, the state removed its application requirement and waiting period for citizens with certain felony convictions, and in 2014 expanded the classification for whom that applied. See Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Virginia, Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-restoration-efforts-virginia.

[16] See Rules of Executive Clemency (2007) (Florida clemency rules adopted under Gov. Charlie Crist), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/analysis/FL%201%202007%20reforms.pdf.

[17] Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Florida, Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-restoration-efforts-florida. See Rules of Executive Clemency (2011) (Florida clemency rules adopted under Gov. Rick Scott), available at http://www.flgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/2011-Amended-Rules-for-Executive-Clemency.final_.3-9.pdf.

[18] Christopher Uggen, et al., Sentencing Project, State Levels of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2010 16 (2012), available at http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_State_Level_Estimates_of_Felon_Disen_2010.pdf.

[19] These include Washington, Alabama, Iowa, Tennessee, Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Louisiana, New Jersey, and New York. See 2003 Ala. Adv. Legis. Serv. 415 (LexisNexis); 2006 Fla. Laws 174; 2008 La. Acts 604; 2009 N.J. Laws 329; 2010 N.Y. Laws 56 (provided for or established notification procedures for people eligible to regain or apply to regain their voting rights; 2007 N.C. Sess. Laws 391; 2006 Tenn. Pub. Acts 860; 2009 Wash. Sess. Laws 1649 (eliminated the requirement that citizens fulfill their criminal justice debt before being allowed to vote); Governor Steve Beshear’s Communications Office, Governor Beshear Helps Restore Rights to Kentuckians, Kentucky.gov (Mar. 4, 2008), http://migration.kentucky.gov/newsroom/governor/20080304votingrights.htm (simplified application processes); Branstad, Reynolds Streamline Restoration of Voting Rights Application, supra note 3. In addition, Hawaii passed a law to standardize data sharing between agencies and Utah passed a law clarifying its policy regarding persons convicted of a felony outside of the state but residing in it. See 2006 Haw. Rev. Stat. Ann. Adv. Legis. Serv. 253 (LexisNexis); 2006 Utah Laws 28.

[20] As governor, George W. Bush signed the law that eliminated a two-year waiting period in Texas. 1997 Tex. Gen. Laws 850. Nevada ended its five-year waiting period shortly after. 2001 Nev. Stat. 358. Delaware removed its waiting period for those receiving automatic rights restoration more recently. 79 Del. Laws 34 (2013). Currently, waiting periods for automatic restoration or application eligibility are used in Florida, Nebraska, and Virginia. See Rules of Executive Clemency (2011) (Florida clemency rules adopted under Gov. Rick Scott), available at http://www.flgov.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/2011-Amended-Rules-for-Executive-Clemency.final_.3-9.pdf; Neb. Rev. Stat. § 32-313; Restoration of Rights, Secretary of the Commonwealth (Virginia), https://commonwealth.virginia.gov/judicial-system/restoration-of-rights/.

[21] See, e.g., American Civil Liberties Union, Smart Reform is Possible: States Reducing Incarceration Rates and Costs While Protecting Communities (2011), available at https://www.aclu.org/files/assets/smartreformispossible.pdf (reviewing examples of criminal justice reforms in selected states); Naomi Shavin, A Republican Governor is Leading the Country’s Most Successful Prison Reform, New Republic, Mar. 31, 2015, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121425/gop-governor-nathan-deal-leading-us-prison-reform (discussing criminal justice reform in Georgia).

[22] See Michelle Natividad Rodriguez, Ban the Box: U.S. Cities, Counties, and States Adopt Fair Hiring Policies, Nat’l Employment Law Project (2015), http://www.nelp.org/content/uploads/Ban-the-Box-Fair-Chance-State-and-Local-Guide.pdf (discussing the growth of “ban the box” policies across the country).

[23] See Nicole Porter, The Sentencing Project, The State of Sentencing 2014: Developments in Policy and Practice 2 (2015), available at http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/sen_State_of_Sentencing_2014.pdf.

[24] The Coalition for Public Safety: Advancing Criminal Justice Reform, Coalition for Pub. Safety, http://www.coalitionforpublicsafety.org/. See also Carl Hulse, Unlikely Cause Unites the Left and Right: Justice Reform, N.Y. Times, Feb. 18, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/us/politics/unlikely-cause-unites-the-left-and-the-right-justice-reform.html.

[25] See Support for the DRA (Democracy Restoration Act), Brennan Center for Justice, https://www.brennancenter.org/legislation/democracy-restoration-act#Support (listing groups and individuals in support of federal voting rights restoration legislation).

[26] Carl Wicklund, Op-Ed, Felon Voting Rights Makes Us All Safer, Lexington Herald-Leader, Mar. 6, 2014, http://www.kentucky.com/2014/03/06/3123547/carl-wicklund-felon-voting-rights.html

[27] Carson Whitelemons, Featured Voice: An Interview with Bernard Kerik, Brennan Center for Justice (Nov. 19, 2014), https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/featured-voice-interview-bernard-kerik

[28] Christopher Uggen & Jeff Manza, Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample, 36 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 193, 213 (2004).

[29] Florida Parole Commission, Status Update: Restoration of Civil Rights (RCR) Cases Granted, 2009 and 2010 7, 13 (2011), available at https://fpc.state.fl.us/docs/reports/2009-2010ClemencyReport.pdf.

[30] Alex Altman, Koch Brother Teams Up With Liberals on Criminal Justice Reform, Time, Jan. 29, 2015, http://time.com/3686797/charles-koch-criminal-justice/.

[31] Jennifer Bendery & Dana Liebelson, The Surprising Voting Rights Issue Both Democrats and Republicans Support, Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/03/voting-rights-felons_n_6999704.html.

[32] 1997 Tex. Gen. Law 850. Previously, Texas law imposed a two-year waiting period following the completion of sentence, including probation and parole.

[33] Lucy Madison, Santorum Hammers Romney over Felon Voting Rights, CBS News, Jan. 17, 2012, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/santorum-hammers-romney-over-felon-voting-rights/.

[34] Jennifer Bendery & Dana Liebelson, The Surprising Voting Rights Issue Both Democrats and Republicans Support, Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/04/03/voting-rights-felons_n_6999704.html.

[35] Cardin, Paul Unite for Discussion of How Best to Restore Voting Rights for Millions of Americans, Brennan Center for Justice (July 22, 2014), https://www.brennancenter.org/press-release/cardin-paul-unite-discussion-how-best-restore-voting-rights-millions-americans.  

[36] See Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Virginia, Brennan Center for Justice, http://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/voting-rights-restoration-efforts-virginia.

[37] H.B. 15, 63rd Leg., Gen. Sess. (Wyo. 2015).

[38] Role Call Vote, H.B. 70, 2015 Reg. Sess. (Ky. 2015), http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/15RS/HB70/vote_history.pdf.

[39] See Lindsay Allen, Sen. Rand Paul testifies about bill that would restore felons’ right to vote, WDRB.com (Feb. 19, 2014), http://www.wdrb.com/story/24768185/sen-rand-paul-testifies-about-bill-that-would-restore-felons-right-to-vote.

[40] See Voting Record of House Ways and Means Committee on S.B. 340, H. Ways & Means Comm., S.B. 340, 2015 Sess. (Md. 2015), http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2015RS/votes_comm/sb0340_w&m.pdf (recording the Yea votes of Republican committee members, Rep. Hornberger and Rep. Simonaire); Voting Record of Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on S.B. 340, S. Educ., Health, & Envtl. Affairs Comm., S.B. 340, 2015 Sess. (Md. 2015), http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2015RS/votes_comm/sb0340_ehe.pdf (recording the Yea votes of Republican committee members, Sen. Bates and Sen. Salling).

[41] John Croman, Released offender voting bill gains momentum, KARE, Jan. 29, 2015, http://www.kare11.com/story/news/politics/2015/01/29/released-offender-voting-bill-gains-momentum/22563659/

[42] 65% Think Felons Should Be Able to Vote After Completing Jail Time, Rasmussen Reports (Feb. 14, 2014), http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_politics/february_2014/65_think_felons_should_be_able_to_vote_after_completing_jail_time