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An inclusive and expansive electorate

An Inclusive and Expansive Electorate

The Dēmos Power Agenda: A Framework for Building People Power offers a roadmap for our shared future. An Inclusive and Expansive Electorate is the fourth of five pillars of the Power Agenda, reflecting our vision for ensuring all people can fully participate, including immigrants and people impacted by the criminal legal system. 


Dēmos envisions a democracy where all people can fully participate, and immigrants and people impacted by the criminal legal system are explicitly embraced.

America systematically denies the right to vote to millions, creating a democracy that neither includes nor represents all of us. Both the immigration and criminal legal systems persist as powerful tools to deem Black and brown people unworthy of participating in our democracy.       


To ensure an inclusive and expansive electorate, Dēmos is focused on: 

  • Advancing the political power and civic participation of immigrants and system-impacted people. 
  • Abolishing penal disenfranchisement at both the state and federal levels. 
  • Reducing barriers to citizenship and centering immigrant justice so all people can freely and actively participate in our democracy without fear. 

Where We Are and How We Got Here 

Voting—and the right to choose our representatives—is the cornerstone of our democracy. Yet, government at all levels has long denied the right to vote to millions of Black and brown people who call the U.S. home through laws that determine who gets to belong. This political exclusion is perfected by tying the right to vote to citizenship and then exploiting the criminal legal and immigration systems to either subjugate people to second-class citizenship or exclude them altogether. Today, our democracy excludes the voices of over 4.6 million Americans relegated to second-tier citizenship through felony disenfranchisement113 and an estimated 19.7 million immigrants who have not attained citizenship.114

Felony disenfranchisement first became weaponized in the post-Reconstruction era when the recognition of Black people as citizens and the expansion of voting rights to Black men prompted white-led governments to devise new ways to suppress Black political power.115 Southern white legislatures manipulated existing felony disenfranchisement laws and criminal codes to target crimes they believed were predominantly committed by Black people, including petty theft.116 Felony disenfranchisement laws became a central part of the Jim Crow regime117 and laid the groundwork for racist “law and order” policies in the 1960s and 1970s. This in turn led to the current era of mass incarceration, where a majority of incarcerated people are Black.118 Today, Black and brown people continue to be overrepresented in America’s sprawling prison systems. While Black people are just 13 percent of the total population, they represent more than 35 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population.119

Together, the rise of mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement have become an essential means of suppressing Black political power and maintaining white supremacy.120 Currently, one in 19 Black voters is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, compared to one in 50 of the general population.121  The impact is even more severe in Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee, and Virginia, where one in 10 Black adults is disenfranchised.122 While data on other communities of color are not as robust, studies show Latino voters also experience felony disenfranchisement at higher rates in at least 31 states.123 Even though all but two states currently enact some form of felony disenfranchisement,124 studies indicate that most Americans support voting rights for the formerly incarcerated.125 The success of the 2018 Florida ballot initiative Amendment Four in Florida bears this out. A citizen-led ballot initiative to restore the right to vote to most Floridians with criminal convictions who had completed their sentences,126 Amendment Four passed by nearly 65 percent with bipartisan support.127 The Florida Legislature swiftly curtailed this victory, however, with a law that bars formerly incarcerated people from voting if they have not paid off court-imposed legal fees associated with their felony convictions.128 Laws that impose this type of modern-day poll tax on formerly incarcerated voters are widespread. As of 2019, 30 states explicitly or implicitly condition the restoration of voting rights on payment of criminal legal debt.129  

Our immigration system similarly locks Black and brown people out of political power by erecting barriers to citizenship while denying noncitizens the right to vote. Historically, race and eligibility for citizenship have been tightly intertwined. Enslaved Black people were denied basic personhood and citizenship, and the first federal law governing naturalized citizens limited eligibility to “free White persons.”130 Even after the Fourteenth Amendment granted eligibility for birthright citizenship to all people born in the U.S., racial bans remained in place well into the 20th century, with laws against the naturalization of Asian immigrants eliminated only in the 1940s and 1950s.131 And citizenship for Native Americans—which the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked in the 1880s—was not formalized in federal law until 1924.132  

Today, noncitizens are barred from voting in all federal elections and can only vote in local elections in 17 jurisdictions.133 These restrictions primarily impact Black and brown communities, as the vast majority of immigrants in the United States are from non-European countries, with the largest percentages migrating from Asia and Latin America.134 Noncitizens have not always been excluded from the electorate, however.135 Indeed, the United States has a long history of noncitizen voting in local, state, and national elections that stretches as far back as the colonial period.136  

Before 1926, noncitizens voted in as many as 40 states and federal territories, though their voting rights ebbed and flowed throughout the 19th century.137 The ebbs and flows of noncitizen voting, and its ultimate elimination in 1926, coincided with different sociopolitical events and political trends in American history.138 For example, in the period leading up to the Civil War, Southern states fiercely opposed extending the right to vote to immigrants because newer immigrants generally did not support slavery.139 And around the turn of the 20th century, a massive influx of darker immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe triggered a large-scale reversal of noncitizen voting rights, culminating in a significant loss of political power for immigrants.140 The same racism and xenophobia that gutted voting rights for noncitizens also ended an era of unrestricted immigration, paving the way for current exclusionary immigration policies.141  

Today’s restrictive immigration system entrenches the disenfranchisement of immigrants by making citizenship—and the full rights and privileges that come with it—unattainable for many. Our government denies a pathway to citizenship to over 11 million undocumented immigrants residing in the United States,142 preventing them from fully and freely participating. In addition, over 8.8 million immigrants are eligible for citizenship but have not yet completed the naturalization process. Advocates cite language barriers and the high naturalization costs as two of the biggest obstacles to becoming a citizen.143  

What This Means For Our Families, Communities, And Our Nation 

As Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s Executive Director Desmond Meade has said: “A more inclusive democracy is a more vibrant democracy and a more vibrant democracy is good for everybody.”144 When our laws deny immigrants and systems-impacted people the right to vote, the result is a government that does not represent over 24.3 million people who live in America—who are disproportionately people of color. These categorical exclusions of people from our electorate violate the founding principle of no taxation without representation and omit the voices of those whose lives may be most directly impacted by policy decisions. For example, in Texas—where one in six residents is an immigrant and undocumented immigrants comprise 33 percent of the immigrant population145 —the state legislature recently passed a radical anti-immigrant measure that unconstitutionally empowers state law enforcement to deport asylum seekers.146 And in Tennessee, where over 470,000 people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction,147 the Secretary of State recently made the process for restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated people even more difficult and onerous.148 Yet noncitizens and systems-impacted people are often denied one of the most effective tools for holding elected leaders accountable for policy decisions that shape their communities—the right to vote.

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