The Sustained Momentum and Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Voting Rights Restoration

Myrna PérezTomas LopezVishal Agraharkar

July 6, 2015

Currently, more than 4 million Americans living and working in their communities are unable to vote because of a felony conviction in their past.[1] Antiquated laws continue to deny citizens a stake in their communities, and the population as a whole loses out on the benefits that come from more civically engaged citizens. But the continued challenge does not diminish the real progress the United States has made this century. More people with criminal convictions in their past are able to vote today, and in more states, than they could 20 years ago — and efforts continue at both the state and federal levels to grow that number still. Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have taken action (legislative or executive) to allow more people with past criminal convictions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily.[2] That includes reforms in six states over the past five years.[3] And just this year, in 2015, one bill was signed into law in Wyoming,[4] and reform bills moved in at least three additional states.[5]

One key factor in this progress is the growing bipartisan consensus on the need for criminal justice reform, and the recognition that restoring voting rights is a smart-on-crime policy. Leaders of both parties are acknowledging that we imprison too many people for too long, and do not provide adequate opportunities for people to reintegrate into society — rather than recidivate — after they leave incarceration.[6]  That recognition has led law enforcement professionals, faith leaders, and public officials from across the political spectrum to endorse voting rights restoration proposals nationwide.

The momentum for voting rights restoration is reflected in both the wave of reforms that have spread throughout the United States in recent years, and the growing number of supporters who see reform as common sense.

The Steady Wave of Reform

The nation’s felony disenfranchisement laws range from lifetime bans on voting for people with felony convictions in three states (Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky) unless a pardon can be obtained, to laws in two states that allow people to vote while serving their term of incarceration (Maine and Vermont). The remaining states exercise a range of policies,[7]many of which have changed in recent years to restore the right to vote to more Americans with past criminal convictions. The recent wave of reform has extended access to the vote to people with criminal convictions through both legislative and executive action, and through a variety of policy changes in more than 20 states.

Rhode Island Restores Voting Rights to Citizens Living in their Community, and Additional States Restore Voting Rights to Tens of Thousands More

Rhode Island implemented the nation’s most extensive recent reform. In 2006, voters approved a ballot measure that allowed citizens to vote when released from prison, or who were never incarcerated in the first place.[8] Additionally, since 2000, three states have fully lifted lifetime bans on voting by citizens with past criminal convictions and now automatically restore the right to vote when a person has completed their sentence, including parole and probation. Together, the legislative efforts to end lifetime felony disenfranchisement in New Mexico (2001),[9] Nebraska (2005),[10] and Maryland (2007)[11] restored the right to vote for more than 160,000 citizens.[12]

For a time, Iowa ended its lifetime ban and automatically restored voting rights for those who completed their sentences. In 2005, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order that allowed approximately 80,000 citizens to vote.[13] A later governor, Terry Branstad, reversed this action,[14] and the state is once again one of three, with Florida and Kentucky, where only the governor can restore a citizen’s voting rights.

Numerous States Have Restored Voting Rights to Some Citizens Living in the Community

Some states selectively restore voting rights to certain citizens in the community. For example, in 2001, Connecticut extended voting rights to citizens on probation, making it one of four states that make a distinction between the voting rights of probationers and parolees. Five states since 2000 have taken action to selectively expand automatic voting rights restoration to those with certain convictions.[15] While these distinctions can impose administrative costs and lead to confusion among both election officials and the general public, the expansion of voting rights restoration remains a positive development for both states and those who qualify for rights restoration.

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