In twelve states, convicted felons can permanently lose their right to vote, even after being released from prison, according to the nonprofit organization ProCon.org. Florida is among those states, as are three other battlegrounds in this year’s Presidential election: Virginia, Nevada, and Iowa. And in the remaining states, the restoration of voting rights to ex-convicts is based on widely varying conditions. Some allow re-enfranchisement upon release from prison. Others grant the right only after the individual’s probation is completed.
In 2011, the Florida legislature repealed a 2007 law that mandated automatic restoration of voting rights to ex-prisoners who completed their sentence, including probation. Some 23 states have moved in the opposite direction in the past decade, restoring some or all voting rights to ex-convicts. Despite this limited progress, voting rights advocates say the number of disenfranchised ex-offenders is still growing.
Desmond Meade is an ex-convict, law student, and president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, a group fighting to overturn the 2011 Florida law. He says the consequences of disenfranchisement are far-reaching and affect minorities disproportionately.
“When you talk about the right to vote, you’re not just talking about enfranchising an individual,” Meade said in an interview with The Crime Report. “Every day, in minority communities, you have people getting arrested … As that individual loses [his or her] right to vote, that community loses another voice, to the point that that community becomes insignificant.”
But even as efforts aimed at re-enfranchisement make progress, laws denying the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-prisoners have their defenders, including Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington, D.C. think tank.
“We have certain minimum objectives and standards: responsibility and commitment to the law, and trustworthiness,” Clegg told The Crime Report. “If you’re not willing to follow the law, you can’t claim the right to make the law for everybody else. When you vote that’s what you do.”
The NAACP recently initiated a national campaign to call attention to the issue. The campaign launched in Florida, where the number of ex-prisoners without a restored right to vote is among the highest in the nation at approximately 1.5 million.
Nationally, polls indicate that a majority support eliminating bans on re-enfranchisement of ex-convicts. Indeed, the United States lags behind many European countries and Canada, where current debate hinges on whether to allow prisoners to vote during their incarceration. In these countries, bans on voting for ex-prisoners are far less common than in the U.S.