A record number of ex-felons will be ineligible to cast their vote this year, according to The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for reforms in the criminal justice system.
Why does this matter? It could impact the presidential race.
Different states treat felons in dramatically different ways when it comes to casting their ballot. In Maine and Vermont, even inmates can vote. But 11 states have policies restricting ex-felons from voting, even after they’re released from prison.
The number of people unable to vote because of their criminal convictions has skyrocketed in recent years, according to a study by The Sentencing Project. As of 2010, 5.85 million adults were disenfranchised because of their criminal records -- up from 3.34 million in 1996. About 4 million of the felons who can’t vote today are not incarcerated, said Christopher Uggen, a University of Minnesota sociology professor who wrote the report.
It’s an issue that disproportionately affects black voters. Nearly 7.7 percent of adult African-Americans can't vote because of their criminal status -- more than quadruple the rate among people of other races. And in the key swing states of Virginia and Florida, the rate is even higher: More than 20 percent of black people in those states can’t vote because of their criminal record.
In 2008, President Obama got 96 percent of the black vote, and many pundits say that to get reelected, he’ll need to get large turnout among that demographic. Meanwhile, according to the latest Gallup poll, President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney are in a dead heat among likely voters. One group that could help break the tie -- but in many cases won’t be able to -- is convicted felons.
Felons in Florida
More than 10 percent of the voting-age population in Florida can’t vote because of criminal status. Today, that figure may be higher. In one of his first acts as governor, Rick Scott enacted stricter rules for ex-felons trying to regain voting rights. But if more felons could vote, it might actually be enough to swing the state for Democrats, since felons tend to disproportionately be minorities, and minorities disproportionately vote for Democrats, says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said that in an election year when the candidates are polling neck and neck, felon disenfranchisement is a political issue.
Today, an ex-felon must not commit a crime for five years before even beginning the process of petitioning the state for the right to vote. That’s a reversal of a 2007 policy that still required applications but didn’t require a waiting period.
Legislators have sought to undo Scott’s policy, but without success. “It is appalling in this day and time to continue to punish [felons] after they have paid their debt to society,” said Florida state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, who introduced legislation this year that would overrule the governor’s waiting period provision. It never got a hearing.
She and other Democrats have accused Scott, a Republican, of restricting felons’ ability to vote as a way to suppress the minority vote. That’s a familiar theme in Florida, which is currently in a high-profile battle with the federal government over other changes to voting and elections procedures that many say will reduce minority turnout.
“I don’t believe felons’ right to vote should become a political football, but it has,” said Florida state Sen. Eleanor Sobel, who has introduced similar legislation in hopes of restoring voting rights for ex-felons.
Others, like Florida state Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, say the discussion should be more about criminal justice reform than civil rights. She and others argue that renewing a convict’s civil rights is an important step in reintroducing him into society.
Hope for Felons
Despite the debate in Florida, the pendulum may be moving in favor of expanded voting opportunities for felons. Since 1997, at least 23 states have passed legislation or taken other steps to help people with convictions regain the right to vote, according to a 2009 study by the Brennan Center for Justice. This year alone, more than 20 states have considered legislation to relax felon disenfranchisement policies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Everyday, a person is being disenfranchised in the minority communities, and that weakens that community’s political voice,” said Desmond Meade, a convicted felon turned law student who spoke to reporters on a conference call organized by The Sentencing Project last week. “And once their political voice has been weakened, then they find it harder to get the attention of elected officials as far as services go, in public safety or schools or parks.”
In 2010, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, announced new procedures to expand felons' voting rights. They still have to apply for that right, but wait times to process the applications of non-violent felons was reduced from three years to two years.
At the time, McDonnell said it’s the government’s obligation to hold felons accountable. “However, once they have served their time and fully paid for the offenses they have committed, they should be afforded a clear and fair opportunity to resume their lives as productive members of our society,” he said in a statement.
And in Delaware this summer, state lawmakers passed legislation to amend the constitution to eliminate a five-year waiting period before felons may regain voting rights. The legislation passed in both chambers, and lawmakers must pass it again next term for it to take effect.
Delaware state Rep. Helene M. Keeley, who authored the legislation, said a grassroots campaign prompted some legislators who were historically opposed to the amendment to change their minds.
“Yes, it is a privilege to vote,” Keeley said, acknowledging the most prevalent argument to loosening disenfranchisement policy. “I hope this person [felon] will take their privilege to vote more seriously and go to the polls and vote.”
Alaska Resists Reform
Still, such reforms often face an uphill battle. In Alaska this year, the state Senate considered a bill to expand voting rights for ex-felons after release from incarceration. State sen. Bettye Davis has introduced similar legislation almost every term since 2004. Four versions of the bill have gone before Alaskan lawmakers -- all unsuccessful.
“It would make felons feel more in tune with society,” said Davis. “It will keep many from returning to jail by being able to vote and participate in the community. It’s just the right thing to do.”