By Christopher Zoukis
More than six million citizens will be handcuffed from casting a vote this November.
After updating a study it did four years ago, The Sentencing Project released the estimated number of Americans that won't be permitted to vote in this year's elections due to their criminal records. Using new Census data on the voting age population, and adjusting for recent changes in state disenfranchisement laws, the study placed the number of disenfranchised ex-felons at 6.1 million.
The number of disenfranchised persons has climbed alongside the growth in incarceration totals. Forty years ago, an estimated 1.1 million people had lost their voting rights due to criminal convictions. Twenty years later, the total had risen to 3.3 million. In 2000, the number reached 4.7 million, rose to 5.4 million by 2004, and to 5.9 million by 2010, according to a study released in 2012 by some of the same authors of the most recent study.
Many will find it surprising that less than a quarter of these people -- roughly 23 percent of those unable to vote due to criminal records -- are currently incarcerated. The study indicated that 77 percent of the disenfranchised live among us in our nation's communities. Those who have completed their sentences number nearly three million and make up 51 percent of the disenfranchised. Citizens on probation for felonies account for over 1.1 million -- about 18 percent of the total. Over half a million, comprising about eight percent of the total, are parolees.
State disenfranchisement rates for this year's elections will vary substantially, largely due to differences in how broadly the state's provisions apply. Fourteen states disenfranchise only those currently in prison, while four states also include those released on parole. Disenfranchisement laws in 18 more states also cover former inmates out on probation, and 12 states include former inmates who have completed their sentences, including parole or probation. Only Maine and Vermont currently let inmates vote in their elections, and thus have no disenfranchised voters.
Seven states disenfranchise less than half a percentage of their population, while the rates in the rates in six southern states hit over seven percent. The new study notes that felony disenfranchisement laws "vary tremendously across racial and ethnic groups," with more Hispanics and African-Americans affected. In some states -- Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia -- disenfranchisement rates for African Americans make up more than 20 percent of the voting age population, and that rate is 5 percent or higher in 23 states.
Despite the large and growing numbers of current or former inmates unable to vote, the trend in recent years has been to eliminate or reduce barriers to former prisoners' voting. The best-known recent instance is Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe's issuance of an executive order earlier this year, attempting to restore voting rights for all Virginians who had completed their sentences. However, after a court found that exceeded his legal powers, he issued separate orders restoring voting rights to nearly 13,000 individuals in August.
A number of states have begun processes to return voting rights to those with criminal records. In Alabama, legislators simplified the voting rights restoration process for those who had completed sentences for crimes not involving moral turpitude. California restored voting rights for convicted felons residing in jails (but not in prisons). Maryland lifted disenfranchisement for those on parole or probation. And Wyoming restored voting rights after five years for those who completed sentences for first-time, non-violent felonies.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com