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Voting Rights for the Incarcerated

Kay has been working in the legal defense field for almost a decade, with a degree in political science and background in criminal justice.

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Doesn't Every American Deserve the Right to Vote?

As of December 2020,1 out of every 100 people in the United States is currently in prison.

In many states across the country, this means that they are also ineligible to vote in any election. Incarcerated persons often are forced to forfeit their voting rights once a conviction is handed down.

Moreover, in many states, individuals who have a prior conviction but have since been released are also ineligible to vote. As of 2020, almost 5.2 million Americans are forbidden from voting in US elections

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The State's Determination

The severity of these voting restriction varies state-to-state, as laws of this nature would fall under the jurisdiction of the state governments rather than federal. Some states may have no restrictions at all, while others dictate that incarcerated citizens can only vote once their sentence has ended. However, in several states across this country to this day, there are laws in place which forbid anyone who has ever had a felony conviction to participate in any US election.

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States Which Allow Voting Rights for the Formerly Incarcerated

As of 2021, the only locations in the US that allow prisoners to vote regardless of their incarceration status are Maine, Vermont, and Washington D.C. [source]. Under the laws in these districts., there are no legal restrictions preventing those convicted of criminal actions from voting, even while in prison.

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States Which Restrict Voting Rights for Former Convicts

In a stark contrast, nine US states have laws in the books which permanently ban current or even former felons from ever voting in an election.

Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee, & Wyoming currently have laws in place (as of December 2021) which could, under many circumstances, prevent someone with a felony conviction from ever voting. In several of these states however, there are at least some options for recourse.

In Arizona, for example, a formerly incarcerated person may submit an application for re-enfranchisement after completing parole, probation, and paying any relevant fines or restitution relating to the conviction. However, it is never a guarantee that this process will result in voting rights being reinstated.

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By the Numbers

These figures add up greatly over time. As of statistics available from 2020, approximately 5.2 million people in the United States have been permanently disenfranchised from voting due to a felony conviction. [source]. That is approximately 2% of the entire voting age population in the US.

Most notably, this issue disproportionately affects the black community. Recent polls show that about 1 out of every 16 African Americans in this country has lost their voting rights due to a prior conviction... in comparison to 1 out of every 59 non-black voters.

Changing Times Require a New Perspective

Prohibiting individuals who have previously been incarcerated from voting could have a massive negative impact not only on the electorate, but more specifically on the structure of the criminal justice system itself. As technology and society advance, many activities and substances which were previously considered criminal behavior are now commonplace, everyday items and occurrences.

For example, for some time in the history of the US, many states forbade interracial couples from marrying, and doing so was punishable by jail time. During the Prohibition Era, the possession, manufacturing, and consumption of alcohol under almost any circumstance would have landed someone in prison. Today, we regard those laws as antiquated and even barbaric. Unfortunately, it seems we may be letting history repeat itself in the modern world as well.

As of the writing of this article, 38 US states currently allow for medicinal use of THC products, and many states have even decriminalized marijuana usage completely. However, there are countless individuals across the country who have currently or have previously been incarcerated for cannabis-related offenses - many in the very states which have legalized its usage.

This means that there are individuals who are ineligible to vote in their states for a prior criminal conviction, for an action which is no longer considered illegal.

Time to Move Forward

Prohibiting formerly incarcerated persons from voting prohibits them from having an impact on the laws which directly affect them and their communities. They no longer have a say on whether the punishment they received was just, or if the action in question should have even been considered a crime. They have no say in deciding which elected officials will impact the remainder of their lives through their policies and legislation. The very people who are most affected by outdated, misappropriated, or outright unjust laws are the ones who often have the least say about it.

This modern prohibition of participation in the electoral process is an utter contradiction to the very essence of American democracy, and change is needed today.

Get Involved

Use any of the links contained in this article or search for more to find how you can get involved and help make a positive change today.

The sentencingproject.org provides a number of wonderful resources for how to contact your state and local officials, read up on current legislation, and connect with community members looking to make a change, just like you.

For information regarding any current or pending legislation in each state, please go to BallotPedia.org.

If you would like more information on voter eligibility with regards to a criminal conviction, please go to campaignlegal.org/restoreyourvote, and remember, regardless of your past, your voice deserves to be heard.

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