The right to vote is one of the most fundamental rights and responsibilities enjoyed by American citizens. Despite how central voting is to civic life, Americans can lose the right to vote – permanently in some states – if they have been convicted of a crime. Over five million such Americans are unable to vote, 75% of whom have completed their prison or jail terms and are living in their communities.
State disenfranchisement laws and those covering how to restore the right to vote vary considerably and can be complicated. For example, in some states, conviction of certain misdemeanors will result in disenfranchisement. In Florida, more than 770,000 of the 1.4 million disenfranchised people who completed their sentences are currently unable to vote due to unpaid obligations like fees and fines.
While most states enacted felony disenfranchisement laws prior to the Civil War, restrictive Black Code laws adopted after emancipation, which required African Americans to sign yearly labor contracts or risk arrest, fines, and forced labor without pay, subjected them to heightened levels of disenfranchisement. This has continued to the present, in large part because of decades of incarceration policies implemented in response to the so-called war on drugs. Today, one in sixteen African Americans of voting age are unable to vote, which is more than three times the ratio for non-Black voters.
The American Bar Association (ABA) urges the repeal of any laws that disenfranchise persons based upon criminal conviction. While certain collateral sanctions may be appropriate for specific types of offenses, the ABA believes that fundamental rights should never be denied due to a criminal conviction, including access to the courts and voting. Public opinion supports these principles as well: a recent national survey found that 56% of those polled supported a guaranteed right to vote despite a criminal conviction.
Help may be on the way. If enacted, the Democracy Restoration Act (DRA), introduced by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) as S. 481, would ensure that every state restores the right to vote in federal elections to men and women re-entering society after completion of their sentence. Supported by the ABA, the language of the DRA already passed the U.S. House of Representatives early last year as part of the broader voting rights, campaign finance, and ethics reform package, H.R. 1.
Unfortunately, the outlook for the DRA this Congress is grim, given opponents’ rhetoric heading into midterm elections that the DRA is “soft on crime.” Supporters of the DRA reject those claims, noting that the bill has no impact on what constitutes a crime, how police and prosecutors operate, or the sentence a person receives. Instead, they contend that the Act is expected to improve public safety by reducing recidivism by helping people make successful transitions as productive members of their communities. The ABA will continue to educate lawmakers about the public safety function of the DRA and advocate for its enactment this year.
For developments on this and other issues involving criminal justice reform and voting rights, follow us on Twitter@ABAGrassroots.