For citizens of the United States, the act of voting is perhaps the most powerful way to have our voices be heard.
Whether voting in a nationwide presidential election, or in smaller, city-wide elections that determine our local representatives and laws, the act of voting empowers each individual citizen to stand up for what they believe in.
By today’s standards, most every US citizen over the age of 18 is allowed to vote. That is, an individual cannot be denied the right to vote based on their age, race, sex, or religious affiliation.
However, there is still a group of citizens whose voting rights continue to be a topic of discussion even today:
Those with a criminal record.
Now, there’s a common misconception in America that individuals who have committed a felony are automatically stripped of their voting rights once they’re convicted of the crime. While this is true in some instances, it’s not always the case. The truth is, determining the voting rights of a convicted felon is often a rather convoluted process – which often leads those who have been convicted of a crime to not even bother looking into it in the first place.
With that in mind, in this article we’re going to dig into the state-by-state laws concerning the voting rights of convicted felons, so that you and your loved ones have a better idea of what to expect should you wish to participate in an upcoming election – or any future election, for that matter.
Stats and Facts Regarding Felon Disenfranchisement
To be clear, the issue of disenfranchisement based on criminal history spreads far and wide across the entire country.
According to data collected by ProCon.org:
- 6.1 million American citizens – 2.5% of the eligible population – cannot vote due to their felony record
- The number of incarcerated individuals (many of whom are not eligible to vote until their release) jumped from about 501,000 in 1980 to 2,300,000 in 2013.
- In 2013, African Americans made up over 36% of the total prison population – despite making up only 12.6% of the population of the United States
Needless to say, a lot of people – many of them minorities – are negatively affected by disenfranchisement laws. And, again, even those who may actually be eligible to vote often assume that their criminal record automatically disqualifies them from doing so…so they don’t even try.
But, as we’ve discussed before on our blog, while those with a criminal record do face a loss of some of their rights, they do retain most of them. In many cases, this also applies to the individual’s right to vote.
So, let’s take a deeper look at the voting laws as they apply to individuals with a criminal record.
Voting Laws Across the Country for Individuals with a Criminal Record
In 2002, the US Senate coated 63-31 against implementing a federal ruling that would restore voting rights across the country to individuals who had committed certain crimes in their past.
As there is no federal mandate regarding these voting laws, each state is allowed to implement such laws as they see fit. Throughout the remainder of this article, we’ll discuss the five â€œcategoriesâ€ that certain states fall into with regard to these voting laws, and explain some of the exceptions to these rules that apply in a few states.
Unrestricted Voting Laws
There are two states that have no restrictions on voting for those with a criminal record – no matter how serious their crime was.
In Maine and Vermont, all citizens over the age of 18 are allowed to vote, regardless of their criminal past. Unlike many other states (which we’ll discuss in a moment), those who have been convicted of any crime within Maine or Vermont don’t even need to apply to have their voting rights restored – because these rights were never taken away in the first place.
What’s more, even individuals who are still serving out their sentence are allowed to vote, as well – even if they’re currently incarcerated. In both Maine and Vermont, incarcerated individuals are provided the opportunity to vote via absentee ballot, allowing them to fulfill their civic duty despite facing a variety of other restrictions in their current lives.
There are a number of states in which an individual’s voting rights are automatically restored once they are released from jail or prison.
These states include:
Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah. The District of Columbia also follows this stipulation.
In these states (and Washington, D.C.), incarcerated individuals are not permitted to vote. However, those under court-ordered supervision, such as parole or probation, retain their right to vote without question.
Also, individuals within these states do not need to take any further steps to have their voting rights restored (other than ensuring they are correctly registered to vote). As long as they are outside prison walls, they are legally allowed to participate in the voting process.
In a handful of states, convicted felons are only eligible to have their voting rights restored once they are release from prison and complete their sentence of parole.
(Note: For cases in which an individual is released from prison and is not sentenced to further supervision, their voting rights are restored upon their release.)
This ruling applies to:
- New York
As we’ll discuss in a moment, this ruling does not apply to individuals sentence to a term of probation. Those serving a sentence of probation remain eligible to vote.
(However, a probationer may need to request permission from their probation officer in order to enter their local voting area depending on their restrictions. For example, if an individual’s registered voting location is within a school zone, they may be required to vote via absentee ballot.)
In many states, those who are serving a sentence of probation (as well as those who are incarcerated or serving a sentence of parole) are ineligible to vote until their sentence has expired.
These states include:
Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
In Nebraska, those who were sentenced to probation are also ineligible for two years after their sentence has expired.
In West Virginia, a probationer’s judge can revoke the individual’s voting rights after their probation has ended if they haven’t paid their financial penalties and obligations in full; once they have done so, their voting rights will be restored.
States Requiring Individual Petitions
In a handful of states, all individuals who have been convicted of a felony must petition their court or state government in order to have their voting rights restored.
These states include:
One important factor to note, here, is that individuals convicted and living in Florida will not be considered eligible even to apply to have their rights restored until five years have passed since their sentence has ended.
States with Unique Disenfranchisement Laws
A number of states don’t necessarily fall under one of the specific categories mentioned above, so it’s important that we discuss each of them separately.
Alabama’s voting laws for convicted felons are a bit complicated.
In some cases, those who are convicted of a crime never lose their right to vote. As in Maine and Vermont, these individuals maintain the right to vote even while incarcerated (which, again, they can do via absentee ballot). Crimes that fit this category include DUI, receiving stolen property, and obstruction of justice – among others.
In other cases, however, individuals permanently lose their right to vote. In these instances, the only way in which the individual can regain their voting rights is to be fully pardoned for their crime, which would erase their criminal record completely. Such crimes include murder, rape, and sodomy.
In other instances, individuals who commit crimes of â€œmoral turpitude,â€ such as burglary, robbery, or forgery, must apply to have their voting rights restored.
For more information regarding specific crimes that fit into each of these categories, check out this post from the ACLU of Alabama.
First and foremost, Arizona law stipulates that individuals who are currently incarcerated or are serving a sentence of probation or parole are ineligible to vote until their sentence has passed.
For first-time offenders (that is, those who have only one felony on record), voting rights are automatically restored once their sentence has expired. Again, they may need to re-register to vote, but they will not need to petition government officials in order to restore their voting rights.
However, those who have multiple felonies will need to petition their local officials if they wish to have their voting rights restored. Officials will typically take into consideration the seriousness of the individual’s crimes, as well as the number of crimes they have on record, in deciding whether or not to restore their voting rights.
If an individual is able to receive a complete pardon for their crimes (or, at least, to the point that they have one or less felony on record), their voting rights will be automatically restored.
For most felonies, Delaware law allows individuals to regain their right to vote once they have completed their sentence.
However, for certain crimes – such as murder, sexual offenses, and crimes related to governmental fraud – an individual’s rights will be permanently revoked. Once more, if the individual receives a full pardon for such crimes, their voting rights will automatically be restored.
For a full list of the crimes that permanently disqualify individuals from voting within the state of Delaware, consult the state’s official government website.
In Mississippi, individuals who have been convicted of â€œmurder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamyâ€ are ineligible to vote.
Those who have been convicted of any other crime do not lose their right to vote at all, and can vote even as they serve their sentence.
However, those who have been convicted of any of the crimes mentioned above can have their voting rights reinstated by petitioning state officials. This process requires the individual to receive a two-thirds majority vote from both houses of the state legislature.
At first, Nevada’s laws in this regard seem pretty straightforward:
Individuals who have been â€œhonorably dischargedâ€ from a term of imprisonment, parole, and/or probation automatically have their voting rights restored. Additionally, those who are able to have their records sealed will also regain their right to vote.
However, Nevada’s official government website provides the following stipulations, which dictate that certain individuals must petition government officials in order to have their voting rights restored:
- Those guilty of committing a category A felony
- Those guilty of committing an offense that would constitute a category A felony if committed as of the date of the honorable discharge from probation, parole, or prison
- Those guilty of committing a category B felony involving the use of force or violence that resulted in substantial bodily harm to the victim
- Those guilty of committing an offense involving the use of force or violence that resulted in substantial bodily harm to the victim and that would constitute a category B felony if committed as of the date of honorable discharge from probation, parole, or prison
- Those guilty of committing two or more felonies, unless the felony for which the person was convicted arose out of the same occurrence as another felon
In Tennessee, voting rights are not automatically restored for convicted felons at any time; rather, those who have been convicted of a felony must petition the court to have their rights reinstated.
(This also means that felons within the state of Tennessee are ineligible to vote throughout the length of their sentence.)
For more serious felonies – such as murder, rape, or treason – individuals will permanently lose their right to vote unless pardoned by the state.
For first-time, non-violent offenders living in the state of Wyoming, their voting rights will be automatically restored once they have completed their sentence of incarceration, parole, or probation. These individuals will receive an official certificate via mail informing them that their voting rights have been restored.
However, those who were convicted outside of Wyoming (and are, again, first-time, non-violent offenders) must apply to have their voting rights reinstated.
Those who have been convicted of multiple felonies, or of crimes of a violent nature, are ineligible to have their voting rights restored.
As we mentioned earlier, it’s a common misconception among American citizens that a person automatically loses their right to vote once they’re convicted of a felony.
As we’ve shown throughout this article, this definitely isn’t the case. In fact, most individuals with a criminal record have at least some way in which to have their voting rights restored – whether automatically or through official processes.
For those serving sentences of incarceration, or even probation, one of the main things that can help keep them going on a day-to-day basis is looking forward to their future life as a more productive and responsible member of society. In terms of civic responsibility, there may be no action more important than voting.
That being said, it’s important for those who have been convicted of a crime to understand that they can still participate in local and federal elections at some point in the future – and they absolutely should choose to do so.