The Right to Vote
Millions of Americans are barred from the polls because of felony convictions. Voting is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of our democracy, yet millions of Americans have had their right to vote revoked for periods ranging from the time spent incarcerated to a lifetime.
In 11 states, you can lose your right to vote for life. The ACLU is fighting to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people so that they, like all Americans, will be heard.
In a democracy, voting is a right, not a privilege. Yet in our democracy, well over five million Americans are unable to participate in this most basic, fundamental right of citizenship because of past criminal convictions. As many as four million of these people live, work, and raise families in our communities, but because of past convictions are still denied the right to vote. Studies have shown that the benefits of voting are numerous. Individuals who vote generally help to make their communities safer and more vibrant by giving to charity, volunteering, attending school board meetings, serving on juries and participating more actively in their communities. Research has also shown that individuals who vote are less likely to be rearrested.
Felony disfranchisement disproportionately impacts people and communities of color. Over 1.4 million of our disfranchised citizens are African-American. The development of felony disfranchisement law is tied to the history of racial discrimination in America. In 1870, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, the Fifteenth Amendment was passed banning race-based disfranchisement. In order to restrict the political participation of newly-enfranchised African-Americans, Southern states began to use criminal disfranchisement laws as a tool to suppress the African-American vote. While disfranchisement laws already existed, a number of Southern states tailored their laws to target African-Americans. For example, Mississippi revised its constitution to impose disfranchisement as a penalty specifically for crimes of which African-Americans were most frequently convicted. Over 100 years later, these laws remain in effect.
The scope and impact of the disenfranchisement laws in the United States are beyond comparison, especially with regard to the continued deprivation of voting rights after incarceration. Of the 5.3 million Americans barred from voting due to a criminal conviction, most of which are non-violent in nature, thirty-nine percent have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole, yet such individuals are still deprived of their right to vote. In several states, people with criminal records encounter a variety of other barriers to voting, including, most often, cumbersome restoration processes or lengthy waiting periods before rights restoration applications may even be submitted.
The ACLU is fighting to restore the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people so that they, like all Americans, can exercise their political voice.
Breaking Barriers to the Ballot Box: Felon Enfranchisement Toolkit (2007 PDF): Right to Vote: A Campaign to End Felony Disfranchisement (Right to Vote) is part of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program. Together with the Voting Rights Project, Right to Vote works with ACLU affiliates throughout the country on legislation, litigation and public education to reform felony disfranchisement policies and practices, and to promote the fundamental, democratic right to vote for all citizens.
Racial Bias Is Inherent in State Felony Disfranchisement Laws (2010 blog): Racial disparities in the criminal justice system have an undeniable impact on our political landscape. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals considered the nature of that impact when it heard arguments in Farrakhan v. Gregoire, which challenges the legality of Washington State’s felony disfranchisement law.
ACLU Urges PA Legislature to Repeal Law Barring Ex-offenders from the Voting Booth (2000 press release)
New Online Search Tool Gives Ex-Offenders Ability To Search Clemency Status (2008 press release)
ACLU Sues Over Tennessee’s Felon Disenfranchisement Law (2008 press release)
Voting With A Criminal Record - Executive Summary (2008 resource)
Virginia Governor Refuses to Restore Voting Rights to People With Felony Convictions (2010 press release)
Democracy Restoration Act Needed To Restore Voting Rights Of Millions Of Americans (2009 press release)
House Holds Hearing Today On Voting Rights (2010 press release)
Legislators Considering Nevada’s Disfranchisement Laws (2011 press release)