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April 2000
Criminal Justice

Federal and state lawmakers revisit voting rights policies for convicted felons, ex-felons
"Suffering for Lack of Suffrage," Chester Hicks, State Government News, March 2000, p. 15.

State and federal policy-makers and courts are reconsidering whether convicted felons and ex-felons should be able to vote.

Convicted felons in 46 states and the District of Columbia lose their right to vote while serving time. Parolees cannot vote in 32 states, and probationers are excluded in 29 of these states. Ten states prohibit all former felons from voting, while four others ban only certain felons. Four states Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont let inmates vote by absentee ballot.

The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization promoting sentencing reform, noted in a 1998 report that 3.9 million Americans, or one of every 50 adults, have been disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Such restrictions have a disproportionate racial impact. Nationally, 13 percent of adult African American men are disenfranchised; in Alabama and Florida, the proportion is 31 percent. The report estimates that, based on current incarceration trends, almost one-third of the next generation of African American men likely will be disenfranchised.

Theoretically, ex-offenders can have their right to vote restored. But cumbersome and confusing restoration procedures in a number of states make this possibility illusory. Legislatures in several states are considering bills that would simplify the restoration process or provide for automatic restoration of voting rights.

At the same time, however, three states have recently passed or are considering restrictions on voting rights. Utah eliminated the voting rights of convicted felons in 1998, and a constitutional amendment revoking the right of offenders to vote may go on the ballot in Massachusetts this fall.

Minnesota note: The right to vote and hold office is restored to Minnesota offenders upon completion of their sentence.

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