Restoring the Right to Vote for Felons
|Thursday, October 2, 2014 at 02:46 PM
Felony disenfranchisement laws have a long history in the United States. They first appeared in the colonies in the 1600s as “civil deaths”—vague punishments born from common law, often involving the loss of voting rights and usually meted out for “morality crimes” like drunkenness. These coarse sanctions evolved, though, and between 1776 and 1821, 11 U.S. states codified specific laws limiting voting rights for people convicted of certain crimes.
By 1868, when the 14th Amendment, which addresses voting rights, was ratified, 29 of 37 American states specifically withheld the vote from people convicted of felonies.
Challenging, Changing the Laws
Since the 19th century, Americans have been challenging state felony disenfranchisement laws in earnest, usually through the courts. In 1974, however, the U.S. Supreme Court mostly ended judicial debate on the topic when it ruled in Richardson v. Ramirez that the 14th Amendment explicitly permits states to withhold voting rights from felons. A subsequent Supreme Court decision in 1985, Hunter v. Underwood, somewhat limited Richardson in finding that felony disenfranchisement provisions passed with discriminatory intent violated equal protection. States could fix such laws, though, simply by amending them.
Since Richardson, judicial challenges to felony disenfranchisement codes have gone nowhere, and the Richardson reasoning has become sturdy legal precedent. Efforts to change these laws have largely moved out of the courts and into state executive and legislative branches.
Since 1997, 23 states “have modified felony disenfranchisement provisions to expand voter eligibility,” according to the Sentencing Project, a group that favors the liberalization of felony disenfranchisement laws. In 2006, for example, the Rhode Island legislature restored voting rights for individuals who had been convicted of felonies and were on probation or parole. New Mexico repealed permanent disenfranchisement in 2001 and Maryland did the same in 2007.
Not all recent changes to felony disenfranchisement laws have made them more lenient, however. In 2012, legislatures in both South Carolina and South Dakota revoked the voting rights of ex-felons on probation, who can now vote only when they’re off probation.
In Florida, voting restrictions have been tightened recently. In 2007, then-Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded the state’s clemency board to automatically return voting rights to nonviolent ex-felons who had completed their sentences. But in 2011, Crist’s changes were overturned. A new clemency board—headed by Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott—required a person to wait between five and seven years post-release before he or she could apply to have voting rights restored.
A spokesman for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who also sits on the clemency board, said Bondi “is philosophically opposed to the concept of automatic restoration of civil rights and believes not only that felons should apply for their rights, but wait for a period of time in order to attest to their rehabilitation and commitment to living a crime-free life.”
Scott’s 2011 revisions have had a major effect. In 2007, 38,971 ex-felons in Florida regained the right to vote; in 2013, just 78 did. As of 2010, Florida was home to roughly 25 percent—or 1.5 million—of the estimated 5.85 million Americans disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction.
Politics and Elections
Still, the momentum seems to be with those who would make felony disenfranchisement laws more permissive. A February HuffPost/YouGov poll found just 21 percent of Americans think felons should permanently lose the right to vote, with 50 percent of respondents saying people should automatically regain voting rights when they leave incarceration.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 states have either considered or are considering 60 bills involving voting rights for people convicted of crimes.
A large majority of the bills under consideration this year seek to make disenfranchisement laws less rigid.
The topic could become an election issue, too.
Take Florida, where Scott is running for re-election, and his opponent is Crist. Polls show the race is very close, and the two candidates’ opposing stances on felony disenfranchisement seems a salient point of debate.
While political disagreement over the issue is common, accord is becoming increasingly common, too. The push to restore voting rights has supporters in both political parties, at the state and federal levels.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, for example, recently has backed expanding voting rights. Kentucky has one of the nation’s most restrictive voting rights laws; it is one of just three states in which ex-felons are permanently disenfranchised. Felons must petition to have their voting rights restored.
Paul plans to introduce a federal bill in Congress that would, among other things, allow any nonviolent ex-felon to vote in federal elections and would withhold federal corrections money from states that don’t inform ex-felons of their new rights.
“This is a much bigger problem than anything else limiting voting right now,” Paul said on CNN. “And I want to help people get their right to vote back.”