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Voter Restoration as a Blueprint for Fighting Disenfranchisement

Progress made in restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions provides an example of the bipartisan potential in the fight for voting rights.

April 18, 2022
Voters at the polls
Marx Felix/Getty

This piece first appeared in the National Urban League’s 2022 State of Black Amer­ica report.

Today in Amer­ica, the right to vote is under assault. Follow­ing a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion in which voters of color turned out in record numbers, state legis­latures rushed to pass an unpre­ced­en­ted wave of laws last year restrict­ing access to voting. Sadly, this assault on our demo­cracy, which shows no sign of letting up, has become increas­ingly partisan. The most restrict­ive laws were passed on straight party-line votes by Repub­lican-led legis­latures. And in the U.S. Congress, where laws protect­ing voting rights had enjoyed bipar­tisan support since the 1960s, legis­la­tion push­ing back on state restric­tions has stalled without a single Repub­lican supporter.

But there is one reform that in recent years has bucked these alarm­ing trends, unit­ing voters across party lines to expand access to the ballot: the restor­a­tion of voting rights to people with convic­tions.

In just the last four years, 12 states and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., have taken action to restore voting rights to people that had previ­ously been barred from voting due to a felony convic­tion. Seven of these states, along with D.C., did so through legis­la­tion. And while most of the legis­latures respons­ible for passing these bills had Demo­cratic major­it­ies, a Louisi­ana bill restor­ing voting rights passed out of a legis­lature domin­ated by Repub­lic­ans in 2018. In two more states—­Flor­ida and Cali­for­ni­a—­voters them­selves restored voting rights to their fellow citizens through ballot meas­ures. The Flor­ida meas­ure passed with almost 65% of the vote, receiv­ing a million votes more than any statewide candid­ate for office – a clear demon­stra­tion of bipar­tisan support. In the last three states—Iowa, Kentucky, and Virgini­a—state governors took exec­ut­ive action to expand the fran­chise. Two of these governors were Demo­cratic, and the third (Kim Reyn­olds of Iowa) is Repub­lican.

It may come as a surprise to many that the issue of voting rights restor­a­tion for people with convic­tions is unit­ing the parties. In fact, it may surprise many to learn that people with convic­tions are disen­fran­chised in the first place. But it’s true.

Forty-eight states disen­fran­chise people convicted of felon­ies while they are incar­cer­ated (Maine, Vermont, and D.C. are the excep­tions). And in many states, disen­fran­chise­ment contin­ues even after people are released from prison. As a result, approx­im­ately 5.2 million people were disen­fran­chised nation­wide due to a convic­tion in 2020, and most of them—almost 3.9 million—were not incar­cer­ated. Moreover, the effects of these laws are not felt equally. For example, Black adults are disen­fran­chised at a rate 3.7 times higher than non-Black adults.

This dispar­ate impact on Black citizens is not an acci­dent. The prac­tice of crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment dates back centur­ies. Still, in many states, the modern laws have their roots in late-19th and early-20th century attempts to evade the mandate of the 15th Amend­ment and continue to deny Black men the right to vote. After eman­cip­a­tion, some states passed laws aimed at crim­in­al­iz­ing Black people—­some­times called Black Codes—to essen­tially continue the insti­tu­tion of slavery. Link­ing the right to vote to these racist crim­inal justice systems then became one of many ways these states limited the polit­ical power of newly free citizens. Moreover, disen­fran­chise­ment was perman­ent in many states—any felony convic­tion led to a life­time ban from the polls.

This shame­ful history may partly explain why, in the 21st century, restor­ing the vote to people with convic­tions enjoys bipar­tisan support. So-called “felony disen­fran­chise­ment” laws are anathema to modern concep­tions of both demo­cracy and crim­inal justice. They also conflict with a nearly univer­sal prin­ciple: forgive­ness. The vast major­ity of people convicted of a felony return to their communit­ies, and it is in every­one’s best interest that they are welcomed back, given a second chance, and encour­aged to rein­teg­rate in a product­ive way. Disen­fran­chise­ment does the oppos­ite: it tells them they are unwel­come, that they do not have a full stake in their communit­ies; that they are second-class citizens. It tells them their voices do not matter.

When rights restor­a­tion is framed in these terms, voters across the polit­ical spec­trum support the reform. People of all faiths believe in forgive­ness. Law enforce­ment and correc­tional officers support restor­ing voting rights because it serves the goal of healthy rein­teg­ra­tion and rehab­il­it­a­tion. Surviv­ors of crime support it for the same reason.

It was this wide­spread support, gener­ated by an appeal to these univer­sal prin­ciples, that drove the most signi­fic­ant of all the recent state laws restor­ing voting rights to passage in Flor­ida in 2018. Flor­ida was respons­ible for almost a quarter of the nation’s disen­fran­chised voters. An estim­ated 1.7 million Flor­idi­ans were disen­fran­chised as a result of a convic­tion. One out of every 5 Black adults in the state could not vote. But in 2018, the Second Chances Flor­ida campaign drove more than 5 million voters to the polls to vote for Amend­ment 4, which put an end to that state’s life­time ban on voting for every­one convicted of a felony. It was thought that 1.4 million Flor­idi­ans would get their right to vote back.

Unfor­tu­nately, Flor­ida also provides an example of how much work there is yet to do to restore voting rights to people living in their communit­ies. Just months after Amend­ment 4 was passed by Flor­id­a’s voters, the Flor­ida Legis­lature passed a law that severely limited its impact by requir­ing people with convic­tions to pay off in full their fines, fees, and resti­tu­tion before they can vote. More than 770,000 voters were disen­fran­chised based on debt alone after the law passed, and the over­whelm­ing major­ity were unable to afford what they owed. And as before, the law produces discrim­in­at­ory results. Black Flor­idi­ans were both more likely to owe debts and to owe more than their white coun­ter­parts.

Still, there has been tremend­ous progress on voting rights restor­a­tion in the last few years. And there is reason to hope that the progress will continue. As of Janu­ary 14, 2022, there were already 20 bills that would restore voting rights pending in seven state legis­latures. Moreover, as our coun­try becomes more and more bitterly divided over voting rights, voting rights restor­a­tion provides one example of what is possible when the debate is centered on univer­sally held prin­ciples, not partisan polit­ics.