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Restore Voting Rights to Citizens with Past Criminal Convictions

The Brennan Center’s Democracy Agenda outlines a series of concrete proposals that the next President and Congress should embrace to improve democracy in America.

Published: October 6, 2016

Read our 2018 Democracy report here.

More than 4.7 million Americans cannot vote because of a past criminal conviction — even though they are no longer incarcerated.[1] Law enforcement officials have judged these individuals as ready to rejoin their families and neighbors, yet they have no say in the communities in which they work and live. Strict and outdated state laws, some created as part of the Jim Crow system of keeping minority voters from the polls, are to blame.[2] In some states, voting bans last a lifetime, and can only be reversed by individual government determinations.[3] In Florida, one in three African-American men is essentially disenfranchised for life.[4]

These laws diminish our democracy. They also hurt public safety by making it harder to re-integrate citizens into their community, which makes them more vulnerable to recidivate. Criminal justice reform advocates, including leaders of both parties, acknowledge that too many people are imprisoned for too long, and re-entry into society is unnecessarily difficult. Removing voting rights contributes to this problem and signals America is unwilling to give people a second chance.


The Democracy Restoration Act, now before Congress, would allow citizens to vote in federal elections immediately upon release from prison or while serving a sentence in the community.[5] It would create a simple and fair rule: If you are living in the community, you get to vote.  

Similarly, a number of states have active proposals to restore voting rights for those with past criminal convictions. In 2015, Wyoming passed reform, and measures in Maryland, Kentucky, and Minnesota came close.

Why This Can Be Achieved

There is sustained, long-term momentum to reform laws that disenfranchise people with criminal convictions. In the past two decades, 20 states have rolled back their restrictions and made it easier for returning citizens to vote, and three states have reversed their lifetime disenfranchisement laws.[6]

These efforts have been buoyed by an increasingly broad coalition of supporters from both sides of the aisle. That coalition includes law enforcement professionals, faith leaders, advocates, and elected officials. It includes current and former Republican Senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain, Rick Santorum, Orrin Hatch, and Rand Paul, along with former President George W. Bush.[7] It includes Koch Industries, which consistently supports right-wing causes, and faith leaders like the late Chuck Colson, a former special counsel to President Nixon.[8]

This issue has also been championed by criminal justice reformers, who recognize voting rights restoration as a smart-on-crime policy that both expands democracy and serves public safety. A Florida government study, for example, found that people who lost the right to vote were three times more likely to return to prison than formerly incarcerated persons who could vote.[9] Another study found “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrests, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior.”[10] Law enforcement professionals increasingly recognize that disenfranchisement does nothing to help the re-entry process.[11]

Americans also support rights restoration. A February 2014 poll found that 65 percent of likely voters believed that those with felony convictions should regain the right to vote after serving their sentence.[12]


Next: Replace Outdated Voting Machines

[1] The Sentencing Project, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 2016, available at

[2] See Erika Wood, Liz Budnitz, Garima Malhotra &Charles Ogletree, Brennan Ctr. for Justice, Jim Crow in New York (2010), available at

[3] Myrna Pérez, Tomas Lopez & Vishal Agraharkar, The Sustained Momentum and Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Voting Rights Restoration, Brennan Ctr. for Justice, July 6, 2015,

[4] The Sentencing Project & Human Rights Watch, Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States 8 (1998), available at

[5] Democracy Restoration Act, Brennan Ctr. for Justice, Mar. 18, 2015,

[6] Myrna Pérez, Tomas Lopez & Vishal Agraharkar, The Sustained Momentum and Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Voting Rights Restoration, Brennan Ctr. for Justice, July 6, 2015,

[7] Jennifer Bendery & Dana Liebelson, The Surprising Voting Rights Issue Both Democrats and Republicans Support, Huffington Post, Apr. 3, 2015,; Lucy Madison, Santorum Hammers Romney over Felon Voting Rights, CBS News, Jan. 17, 2012,; 1997 Tex. Gen. Law 850 (a law that Bush signed while governor of Texas to restore voting rights to people with criminal convictions after completion of their sentence. Previously, Texas law imposed a two-year waiting period following the completion of sentence, including probation and parole).

[8] Carl Hulse, Unlikely Cause Unites the Left and Right: Justice Reform, N.Y. Times, Feb. 18, 2015,

[9] Florida Parole Commission, Status Update: Restoration of Civil Rights (RCR) Cases Granted, 2009 and 2010 7, 13 (2011), available at–2010ClemencyReport.pdf.

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

[11] Carl Wicklund, Op-Ed, Felon Voting Rights Makes Us All Safer, Lexington Herald-Leader, Mar. 6, 2014,

[12] 65% Think Felons Should Be Able to Vote After Completing Jail Time, Rasmussen Reports (Feb. 14, 2014),