STATEMENT: Right To Vote Denied To More Than 5 Million Americans

Release Date: 
October 24, 2006

New York, NY — More than 5 million Americans are directly denied the right to vote, and millions more are misinformed about their eligibility to vote, due to a confusing and archaic national patchwork of "felony disfranchisement" laws, according to a new briefing paper by Demos, a national, non-partisan public policy and research center.

The Case Against Felony Disfranchisement briefing paper, which is published this week as part of Demos' Challenges to Fair Elections series, shows that, from state to state, the U.S. has widely varying election policies and practices that deprive many eligible citizens of their vote because of felony conviction status. Currently, most states impose some voting restrictions on people with felony convictions, ranging from a prohibition from voting while incarcerated to a virtual lifetime ban. In 2004, felony disfranchisement laws were responsible for directly denying 5.3 million Americans their right to vote, with millions more disfranchised due to a variety of procedures that leave even eligible voters misinformed about their voting rights.

"No other Western democracy denies so many citizens the opportunity to exercise the fundamental right and responsibility to vote," said Miles Rapoport, President of Demos. "Shamefully, we are the only democracy that takes the vote away from citizens who have completed their sentences. And, in states where the vote is restored after incarceration or upon the completion of a sentence, many never find out about their restored vote because state corrections authorities and elections officials rarely advise people with felony convictions about their voting rights — and when they do, they often distribute unclear and inaccurate information."

Facts highlighted by the briefing paper include:

5.3 million Americans — 1 in every 40 voting-age adults — were barred from voting in 2004 because of a felony conviction.

Approximately 73 percent of disfranchised individuals are people who have completed incarceration and are living in communities. Denying these 3.9 million people a voice in our government reduces them to second-class citizens, a practice deeply at odds with the fundamental American value of fairness.

Felony disfranchisement policies undermine the spirit and purpose of American democracy and put us at odds with other democratic nations. The United States is the only Western democratic nation that takes the vote away from citizens who have completed their sentences. In fact, many countries also allow prisoners to vote, including Canada, Denmark, France, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Sweden, and Zimbabwe.

Restoring the vote to ex-felons is part of effective rehabilitation. Restrictions on voting rights impede the goal of reintegrating those with felony convictions back into our communities. A recent study has offered evidence that those who vote are less likely to be re-arrested.

Additionally, felony disfranchisement laws have a disproportionately negative impact on the voting strength and representation of communities of color: In states that disfranchise ex-offenders, one in four black men is permanently disfranchised. Given current rates of incarceration, three in 10 of the next generation of black men can expect to be disfranchised at some point during their lifetime.

The average disfranchisement rate for blacks is nearly five times higher than that of non-black Americans. In Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Illinois, the disfranchisement rate for blacks is more than 17 times higher.

Nationwide, over 13 percent of black adult males are denied the right to vote, and black men make up 38 percent of the total disfranchised population. Seventeen percent of Latino men will enter prison in their lifetime, compared to only 6 percent of white men, replicating much of the political disfranchisement experienced in the African American community.

"The truth is, the United States' felony disfranchisement laws have no place in a modern democracy. The numbers are clear: millions and millions of Americans are effectively locked out of the democratic process for years, even a lifetime, owing directly to these policies," said Rapoport. "A majority of Americans — 80 percent, according to one poll--are in favor of restoring the right to vote once a sentence is completed. Community, religious and political leaders--including former Texas Governor and current President George W. Bush and the current Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida--have come out in support of restoring the right to vote to the formerly incarcerated. This is a moment to finally jettison these 19th century practices from our democracy and start to work on making sure that all citizens can register to vote, cast a ballot, and have it count."

To find out more about felony disfranchisement laws or other election-related issues, visit archive.demos.org to download the 2006 Challenges to Fair Election briefing paper series or Demos' Election Reform Agenda from the 2006–2007 policy briefing book, Fulfilling America's Promise.

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