States have restored voting rights for thousands with felony convictions since 2016. See the laws in every state.

  • The 2020 presidential election marks the first election cycle in decades in which no US state will bar all or most residents with felony convictions from voting. 
  • Since 2016, all four of the states that formerly permanently disenfranchised most people with felony convictions from voting have reenfranchised hundreds of thousands of people. 
  • "There has been a lot of progress, but it's been in the states that were the worst of the worst," Myrna Pérez, Director of the Voting Rights & Elections program at the Brennan Center, previously told Insider in June.
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The 2020 election will be the first in decades where no US state will bar all its citizens with felony convictions from voting. 

In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people across the United States were barred from voting due to a felony conviction, with 1 in 13 Black Americans and 1 in 56 non-Black Americans nationwide having lost their right to vote for that reason.

Four states — Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia — until recently barred most or all people with felony convictions from voting, requiring returning citizens with felony records to receive restoration of their rights or clemency directly from their state's governor. 

Since then, as criminal justice reform initiatives gained traction in states across the US, all four of those states have since reenfranchised hundreds of thousands of returned citizens by gubernatorial executive orders or with ballot initiatives. Other states, like New Jersey and New York, have also relaxed their laws to allow those on probation and parole to vote. 

Currently, 11 states permanently disenfranchise people with certain disqualifying felony convictions, 15 states reenfranchise citizens upon release from prison, and 17 states reenfranchise those who have completed the entirety of their sentences, including prison, parole, and probation, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people with felony convictions to vote from prison, and the District of Columbia is moving in that direction as well. The DC Board of Elections recently sent voter registration forms to over 2,400 DC residents incarcerated in federal prisons around the US, DCist recently reported. 

"There has been a lot of progress, but it's been in the states that were the worst of the worst," Myrna Pérez, Director of the Voting Rights & Elections program at the Brennan Center, told Insider in June. "There's still at least a couple of millions of Americans who are living and working in their communities, and can't vote because they have a criminal conviction." 

Since 2016, the governors of Virginia, Kentucky, and most recently, Iowa in August of 2020, have signed executive orders scaling back the permanent disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions and restoring the voting rights of hundreds of thousands of people. 

Florida also previously had one of the most punitive felony disenfranchisement laws in the nation, requiring all residents with felony convictions to individually apply for restoration of their rights subject to the approval of a state clemency board.

After years of hard work from criminal justice reform activists, Florida voters approved a historic ballot initiative in 2018 amending the state constitution to repeal Florida's previous disenfranchisement law and restore voting rights upon completion of sentence, excluding those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.

The move, which was set to immediately restore the voting rights of 1.4 million Floridians, represented the largest expansion of the franchise in the United States since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  

But shortly after, Florida's Republican-controlled state legislature curtailed the new amendment by passing legislation requiring those with felony convictions to pay all financial restitution and court fees associated with their case in order to have their rights restored. These financial obligations could prevent an estimated 770,000 Floridians from being able to vote.

Plaintiffs are challenging the law in court, arguing it violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment and amounts to a modern-day poll tax — especially considering that Florida has no centralized database where people can easily find out what financial obligations they owe. The case, Jones vs. DeSantis, is currently before the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. 

The drawn-out legal fight over whether Floridians will have to pay full fees and fines has left thousands hanging in the balance, with the state's voter registration deadline for the November presidential election coming up in less than a month on October 5.

And as Pérez noted, election officials being uninformed or confused about the laws in their state surrounding felony voting rights can end up wrongly disenfranchising eligible voters or worse, resulting in some voters being prosecuted after they cast a ballot while on probation or parole.

"In a state like California where you can vote if you're on probation but not if you're on parole, nobody knows what the difference is between those two things, you'd have to be a criminal justice professional to understand the difference," she said. 

One of the most recent high-profile instances of those mistakes is the prosecution of Crystal Mason, a Texas woman sentenced to five years in prison for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while on probation for a felony tax fraud conviction.

Mason, whose vote ultimately wasn't counted, maintained that she didn't know she wasn't eligible to vote. A court upheld her sentence on appeal this March, and she's now asking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott for a pardon. 

In North Carolina, too, the Guardian recently reported that a local district attorney in one county charged four people with voter fraud for voting while on probation in 2016. That DA also just doubled the charges against one woman, Lanisha Bratcher, for ineligible voting and making a false statement on her voter registration form, both of which are felonies. 

 

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