Voting is both a fundamental right and a civic duty. However, there remains a significant blanket barrier to the franchise: 5.3 million American citizens are not allowed to vote because of criminal convictions. As many as four million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of convictions in their past they are still denied the right to vote.
State laws vary widely on when voting rights are restored. Maine and Vermont do not deny the franchise based on a criminal conviction; even prisoners may vote there. Kentucky and Virginia are the last two states to continue to permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions unless they receive individual, discretionary clemency from the governor. The remaining 46 states fall somewhere in between, with the varied state laws forming a patchwork across the country. Some states restore voting rights upon release from prison, others upon completion of probation and parole, and others impose waiting periods or other contingencies and categories before restoring voting rights.
This disenfranchisement by law of millions of American citizens is only half the story. Across the country, there is persistent confusion among election officials about their state’s felony disenfranchisement policies. Election officials receive little or no training on these laws, and there is little or no coordination or communication between election offices and the criminal justice system. These factors, coupled with complex laws and complicated registration procedures, result in the mass dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information, which in turn leads to the de facto disenfranchisement of untold hundreds of thousands of eligible would-be voters throughout the country.
De facto disenfranchisement has devastating long-term effects in communities across the country. Once a single local election official misinforms a citizen that he is not eligible to vote because of a past conviction, it is unlikely that citizen will ever follow up or make a second inquiry. Without further public education or outreach, the citizen will mistakenly believe that he is ineligible to vote for years, decades, or maybe the rest of his life. And that same citizen may pass along that same inaccurate information to his peers, family members, and neighbors, creating a lasting ripple of de facto disenfranchisement across his community.