The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates of any OECD country (Manza and Uggen (2002)). It is also one of the only democracies to permanently strip felons of their right to vote (Preuhs (2001)).
All states except Maine and Vermont take away the right to vote of a person convicted of a felony (a "felon") while they are serving in prison (Demleitner (1999)). But most states do not return a felon's right to vote after they serve their sentence. In many states, including Florida, Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky, ex-felons face a lengthy waiting period and must appear in front of a board, and then go through a re-registration process to restore their voting rights.
The issues of felon disenfranchisement came to a head in the 2000 presidential election, where a few decisive votes in Florida determined the outcome of the election. As many newspaper outlets and advocacy groups where quick to point out, felon disenfranchisement kept a large enough group of minority citizens from voting that it most likely affected the outcome of the election (Uggen and Manza (2002, 2006) Karlan (2004) Miles(2004)).
Aside from affecting election results, felon disenfranchisement serves to keep ex-felons feeling alienated from society. Of the 5 million Americans that can not vote because of a felony conviction, more than three-quarters of them are no longer incarcerated (Manza and Uggen(2002)). For these millions of ex-felons, they are still denied one of the most fundamental parts of being American even after "paying their debt to society"—by serving their time in prison, paying the necessary restitution, or keeping to their parole conditions.
Who is Most Affected?
One growing subject of interest for both advocacy organizations and scholars is this practice of felon disenfranchisement and its disproportionate marginalization of minority populations, including racial minorities and the poor (Uggen and Manza (2002)). According to the NAACP, in 2011, over 5 million felons had had their right to vote taken away. One in 13 African-American men are unable to vote and a disproportionate number of Latinos are disenfranchised (Preuhs (2001)).
Not only does it treat the franchise as a privilege that can be revoked instead of a fundamental political (Karlan(2004)), the disenfranchisement of felons may perpetuate the long history in the United States of minority voter suppression. Karlan notes that, by disproportionately taking away the right to vote in historically politically marginalized communities, the power of those communities to affect change electorally is diminished. Robert Preuhs (2001) argues that the impacts of disenfranchisement can reverberate through communities and may "accentuate... [the] perception of illegitimacy of our legal system among minority citizens" (746).
Quantitative analysis by Thomas Miles (2004) shows that enfranchised felons are less likely to vote than their non-convicted peers, meaning that felon disenfranchisement may have had less of a role in election outcomes—including Florida in 2000—than some believe, loss of democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the most underrepresented communities is inherently problematic.
The Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement
The disenfranchisement of felons has a long history that is closely tied to the old English practice of confiscating a convicted felon's estate before he was put to death. In the United States, felon disenfranchisement was used by Southern states in the Jim Crow Era, and was combined with poll taxes, literacy tests, and other tactics to keep African-American populations from voting. In more recent times, felon convictions, especially among minority communities, increased in the 1970s as politicians focused on "law and order" and "cracked down" on crime (Harvey(1994)).
Although the continued use of felon disenfranchisement is not viewed as a deliberate attempt by states to suppress minority voting, continuing socio-economic conditions and reified structures of systemic oppression means that historically marginalized groups are still being marginalized by the current administration of justice.
What can be done?
Many scholars and advocates believe that adopting a different approach to felon disenfranchisement might less negatively impact minority populations and better help felons feel part of American society again (Demlietner(1999) Karlan(2004) Uggen and Manza(2006)). One model often considered is the German model. In contrast to the US model, which leaves much discretion to the states, the German model of disenfranchisement sets national standards that limit disenfranchisement to specifically enumerated offenses (Demleitner (1999)). In the German model, loss of voting rights are impermanent and often short-lived. Scholars feel that the German approach in the U.S. would minimize the loss of voting rights in minority populations. It would also help reintegrate ex-felons back into society by including them in one of the essential parts of American life (Demleitner (1999) Uggen and Manza(2006)).
To learn more about felon disenfranchisement, visit The Sentencing Project.
To see state by state felon disenfranchisement, view the ACLU's map.
Demleitner, NV. 1999. "Continuing Payment on One's Debt to Society: The German Model of Felon Disenfranchisement as an Alternative". Minnesota Law Review 84. 753.
Harvey, A.E. 1994. "Ex-felon disenfranchisement and its influence on the black vote: the need for a second look". University of Pennsylvania Law Review 142(3). 1145-1189.
Karlan, Pamela S. 2004. "Convictions and Doubts: Retribution, Representation, and the Debate over Felon Disenfranchisement". Stanford Law Review 56(5). 1147-1170.
Miles, Thomas J. 2004. "Felon Disenfranchisement and Voter Turnout". The Journal of Legal Studies 33(1). 85-129.
Preuhs, Robert R. 2001. "State Felon Disenfranchisement Policy". Social Science Quarterly 82(4). 733-748.
Uggen, Christopher and Jeff Manza. 2002. "Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States". American Sociological Association 67(6). 777-803.
Uggen, Christopher and Jeff Manza. 2006. Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
For more literature on the problem with Felon disenfranchisement-check out work from The Sentencing Project here.