Felon Voting Rights & the 2018 Midterm Elections

By Ellen Hancock

Whether or not convicted felons can vote varies widely between states. In the most lenient states (Vermont and Maine), felons never lose their right to vote, while in the harshest (such as Kentucky), felons do not regain their vote until they are specifically pardoned by the governor.

These policies effect a massive number of potential voters. According to The Sentencing Project, 6.1 million Americans cannot vote due to prior felony convictions. Even more shocking is how disproportionally these laws effect historically disenfranchised groups of people. As of 2016, 1 in 13 black adults could not vote due to a prior felony conviction, compared to 1 in 56 for non-black voters.

Three states, New York, Virginia, Alabama, have experienced significant changes in felon voter rights since the 2016 election, and the midterms will be the first chance to see how these changes will affect election outcomes.

In New York, Governor Cuomo re-enfranchised New Yorkers on parole. Prior to Executive Order 181, New York felons had to wait until they finished both their incarceration and parole in order to regain their right to vote. This executive order returned the right to vote to 35,000 parolees and ended confusion about voting rights in regard to the difference between people on parole and on probation.

In Virginia, over 172, 298 people have had their voting rights restored since 2016. Originally in 2016, Virginia governor signed an executive order with the goal of restoring voting rights to over 200,000 people with felony convictions. However, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned this order, which required the governor to take a different route: individually reviewing records and regranting voting rights.

In 2017 in Alabama, the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act refined the list of crimes that kept a person with a felony conviction from having voting rights to less than 50 crimes. The Southern Poverty Law center estimates that this could give voting right back to thousands of felons in Alabama.

While three states are looking at how this change in felon voting laws will affect the outcome of their elections, Florida used the election to change theirs. This week Florida voted to pass Amendment 4 which will return voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, parole and probation. Estimates say that that this amendment could return voting rights to 1.4 million people with felony convictions in Florida. (Except for those who have been conflicted of murder or sexual assault.) This change in Florida’s constitution is specifically significant considering that Florida previously held some of the strictest felony voting laws in the country.

Around 3% of the U.S. population has a felony conviction (even higher for African Americans at 15%), which demonstrates the importance of felony voting policies. Especially when elections are close, giving this massive number of people the right to vote or taking it away, can have a major impact on the outcome of an election.