Right now, nearly 6 million Americans are barred from voting because they have criminal records.
Most states prevent people with felony convictions from voting even after they are released. States differ on when, or if, felons' voting rights are restored: some require individual applications, some after parole and probation, and some never restore them at all.
These laws, often collectively called "felon disenfranchisement," are deeply linked to race and socioeconomics. Because black Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white peers, one out of three adult black men cannot vote.
How does it affect you?
First, it's not as hard as you'd think to commit (and be convicted of) a felony. Civil rights attorney Harvey Silverglate famously estimated that the average American commits about three federal felonies per day. Regardless, the number of criminal offenses in the U.S. Code increased from 3,000 to more than 4,450 from 1980 to 2008. During the same period, the incarcerated population increased 500%.
Second, giving felons the right to vote could have a major impact on election results. Even if states only re-enfranchised felons who are now out of prison, around 4.3 million more Americans would be able to vote—more than three times the margin of victory in the most recent elections for members of Congress.
Should felons be allowed to vote after their release?
After a person has been incarcerated, we can and should allow a criminal record to inform some rules around rejoining society—like restrictions on buying a gun. Voting, the most serious and impactful way we participate in our democracy, falls into that category.
These laws are not discriminatory. While these laws do disproportionately affect minorities, that does not make them racist. The fact that they affect men more than women does not make them sexist. Addressing overincarceration of minority Americans should be done head-on, not with a band-aid on the reasonable effects after they have already been in prison.
The unfortunate reality is that 76.6% of released felons will be rearrested within 5 years. For felons who successfully reenter society, case-by-case re-enfranchisement makes sense. Automatically reinstating the right to vote does not. As we do for purchasing guns, we should allow past felonies to inform voting rights.
Felon disenfranchisement is antiquated, anti-democratic, and based on a history of discrimination.
Many states' felony voting bans date from the period directly after the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from denying citizens the right to vote based on race. The larger the state's black population, the more likely that state was to deny felons the right to vote for life. Because of the realities of how criminal codes are enforced, as well as the link between socioeconomic status and race, these voting laws remain fundamentally discriminatory today.
Further, the fundamental idea behind these laws is that a government may control who votes based on past behavior. Voting is free speech; you are voicing your opinion in government. We may place other rules (like on guns), but we do not restrict First Amendment rights based on behavior or viewpoint—it violates the very principles of our democracy.