The story of American democracy is often told as the steady expansion of voting, but history has not yet caught up with one group—former felons. In the early American political system, the right to vote was reserved for white males over the age of 21 who owned land. In 1920, after the passage of the 19th Amendment, it was extended to women nationwide. The right to vote was technically extended to African-Americans in 1868 with the passage of the 14th Amendment and effectively enforced with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1971, Congress lowered the legal voting age to 18. Yet, in all but two states, citizens with felony convictions are prohibited from voting either permanently or temporarily. The United States is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.
Policies on felony re-enfranchisement among the 50 states are so inconsistent as to create confusion among, not only those former offenders who wish to regain the right to vote, but also the very officials charged with implementing the laws. The result is a network of misinformation that discourages some legally eligible voters from registering to vote and places undue restrictions on others during the registration process. Former offenders who are unaware of their state’s restrictions may slip through, register, vote, and in doing so, unwittingly commit a new crime.
Fair and consistent felony re-enfranchisement laws can contribute to the rehabilitation process, and reduce the harmful impact on low-income and minority communities where a disproportionately high number of individuals are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. The right to vote helps to foster a sense of community for those who feel disconnected and unfairly excluded from civic participation. Priority must be given to developing a nationwide policy that allows for reinstatement of voting rights, as well as education of former offenders regarding restoration procedures.