Currently one in forty-one Americans have lost their voting rights because of a criminal conviction.  That is over 5 million people who are denied the right to vote.  Of those, over 2 million have completed their sentence of imprisonment, parole, or probation.  These statistics are even more staggering in an international perspective. While the US has only 5% of the world's population, it has almost 50% of those who are prevented from voting by a criminal conviction.  This is the product both of our broad disenfranchisement rules and our exploded criminal justice system.  The racial and ethnic inequity of felon disenfranchisement is striking.  One in eight black men are disenfranchised by these laws, a rate seven times the national average.  In some states it is one in four. 

Over 60% of Americans support restoring the right to vote after release from prison, and a similar number think that the right to vote is an important factor in a person's successful reintegration after prison.  This view is shared by several law enforcement organizations.  The American Correctional Association, made up largely of professionals in the criminal justice field, has passed a resolution stating that restoring voting rights is critical to reintegration of ex-prisoners into public life: “[D]isenfranchisement laws work against the successful reentry of offenders as responsible, productive citizens into the community.”

States' felon disenfranchisement policies vary widely, ranging from lifelong bans on voting to allowing prisoners to vote. The vast majority of states fall somewhere in between, and reforms must be targeted to each state's current policies.  A large number of states have relaxed their laws in some way in the last decade, though most reforms are modest and the ranks of the disenfranchised continue to grow.States looking to facilitate successful reintegration should look closely at their disenfranchisement laws and practices, as there are often barriers to re-enfranchisement in practice that aren't outlined in the law.  Additionally, states can codify and simplify their restoration procedures to make sure that ex-offender are quickly brought back onto the rolls once their voting rights are restored.

  • Florida scrapped its indefinite disenfranchisement policy in 2007 and now has a standard process for most ex—offenders to regain their right to vote.  This has restored the right to vote for over 100,000 people to date.
  • Rhode Island voters passed an initiative in 2006 restoring the right to vote to parolees and probationers.
  • Hawaii set up data sharing procedures that facilitate restoration of voting rights in 2006.
  • Nebraska replaced their lifetime ban with a two-year waiting period in 2005.
  • Iowa eliminated lifetime disenfranchisement in 2005 as well.
The Sentencing Project — Felony Disenfranchisement
Brennan Center for Justice — Voting After Criminal Conviction
ACLU — Felon Enfranchisement
Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza — Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy