On Tuesday, as part of the election protection hotline work I was involved in, I received a call from a woman who had a felony conviction. She thought she was ineligible to vote ever again but wanted to confirm.
“What state do you live in?” I asked. Each state has a different law, ranging from states that impose a lifetime ban on voting for people with criminal convictions (Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia) to those that allow incarcerated individuals to vote (Maine and Vermont). In between those two extremes is a patchwork of laws that affects millions.
The caller was confused because she lived in Delaware, a state where some individuals with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised, while others can get their right to vote back after meeting certain requirements. She was not the only one confused. Calls and questions came in to the hotline from people throughout the country about voting eligibility for individuals with criminal records. Sometimes we were able to tell callers they were eligible to register and could vote in future elections, but far too often we had to tell them they were not.
Felony disenfranchisement isn’t a small issue; 5.85 million Americans are impacted by these laws, 4.4 million of whom are no longer incarcerated. That means that 4.4 million tax-paying Americans, who live and work in our communities are denied the right to vote. It means that this past Tuesday an individual on parole could vote for president in Utah, but couldn’t if they lived across the border in New Mexico.
Our current system is unjust, confusing for both voters and election officials, complicated and expensive to maintain, and flat out un-American. Thankfully, there is a simple solution. The federal Democracy Restoration Act, introduced by Rep. John Lewis and supported by the Brennan Center, would restore voting rights in federal elections for anyone who is out of prison. It means that citizens in Utah and New Mexico would have had equal voting rights in federal elections this past Tuesday, and the caller from Delaware who had completed her sentence 13 years ago would have had clarity about her eligibility to vote.
The right to vote is one of the greatest hallmarks of being an American citizen. The newly elected Congress should pass the Democracy Restoration Act immediately so that the next federal election is fair, free, and accessible for all Americans.