Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Rhode Island

Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Rhode Island

April 20, 2018

In Rhode Island, citizens have their right to vote restored upon their release from incarceration and return to the community. The people of Rhode Island enacted this policy in a constitutional amendment by popular referendum in 2006, replacing the prior policy of disenfranchising citizens on parole and probation.

Current Disenfranchisement Law

In Rhode Island, the right to vote is restored to all citizens living in their communities regardless of prior felony convictions. Until November 2006, the Rhode Island Constitution disenfranchised people with felony convictions while they were in prison or on parole or probation. After a successful campaign led by a coalition of Rhode Island community groups and supported by the Brennan Center, Rhode Island voters approved an amendment to their state constitution restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions upon release from prison.  According to the Family Life Center, since the new law, 6,300 individuals registered to vote in time for the Nov. 2008 election, and 3,001 individuals voted in one or more of the three state-wide elections in 2008.

In 2004, the Family Life Center undertook a study that showed the extent of disenfranchisement under the prior policy of disenfranchisement for parolees and probationers. 15,500 Rhode Islanders were disenfranchised at the time, and 86% of those (more than 13,000) were living in the community on probation or parole. Twenty percent of black men in the state were disenfranchised. The study helped to create momentum for change.

The Brennan Center was involved in several key steps on the road to this new policy

In 2005, at the opening of the legislative session, the Brennan Center drafted a resolution to amend the constitution to re-enfranchise people immediately after incarceration. The legislature passed this resolution on June 28, 2005, and the people of Rhode Island approved the amendment by referendum in November 2006. For a press release on that victory, click here.

In 2006, the Center drafted the comprehensive companion bill to implement the constitutional amendment. That bill was passed by the Legislature in the 2006 session and became effective upon passage of the referendum.

In August 2007, the Rhode Island Secretary of State issued regulations implementing the Voting Rights and Restoration Act. For more information and materials about the Rhode Island victory see the Rhode Island Right to Vote Campaign website.

Brennan Center Publications

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in New York, please contact Makeda Yohannes, at makeda.yohannes@nyu.edu.