Eligible but Locked Out: A Look into Felony Disenfranchisement
Image from Raafaye Ali
By 2020, 5.2 million Americans were unable to vote due to laws that disenfranchise persons convicted of felony offenses. In the last 25 years, half of the states have adjusted their laws and policies to allow people with felony convictions to vote, however, 2.3 percent of eligible voters remain affected. For context, one out of every 44 voting-eligible adults in the United States has been disenfranchised because of a current or previous felony conviction.
By definition disenfranchisement is “the act of depriving a person of the rights or privileges of full participation in any community or organization, especially of the opportunity to influence policy or make one’s voice heard”. It’s important to note that felony disenfranchisement laws differ widely across the United States. Many incarcerated individuals are serving their time for misdemeanor convictions or have not yet been convicted of a crime – while these individuals keep their voting rights, they often face a myriad of barriers to being able to access and cast their ballots.
Felony disenfranchisement dates to the late 19th century and early 20th centuries when Southern legislators fought to neutralize the black electorate. During this time, legislation that allowed correctional systems to arbitrarily and permanently deprive significant groups of people of their ability to vote was a particularly effective tactic in the attempt to weaken African-American political strength.
Photographed by Michael Fleshman
Over a century later, whether or not felony disenfranchisement laws today are intended to produce the same outcome, this is their irrefutable effect. The unprecedented expansion of the criminal justice system and its racial disparities has caused felony disenfranchisement laws to considerably affect the political voices of many American communities- disproportionately excluding Black Americans from voting. It has taken away the right to vote from one out of every 16 African Americans of voting age, a rate that is nearly four times greater than non-African Americans. Moreover, it is estimated that Black, Latino, and Native populations are disenfranchised at a rate higher than the general population and their white counterparts in almost every state. The results of these collateral consequences undermine the political power of communities of color, the ability to fully participate in the community following a conviction, and confines both economic and life opportunities.
Image from Brent Staples’s article on The Racist Origins of Felon Disenfranchisement. Photographed by Rob Carr.
In an environment that forces people to be stripped of their autonomy, individuality, and freedoms, felony disenfranchisement furthers the disconnect between an incarcerated person and the outside world. In a total institution, the basic needs of an entire group of people are under bureaucratic control, and incarcerated individuals undergo resocialization – the process that involves taking away the identity and independence of an individual with the aim to re-engineer it. You can think about this as forcing incarcerated people to surrender all personal possessions and wearing standardized jumpsuits. Felony disenfranchisement is just another way for people in power to silence individuals who are already isolated from the eyes of society, experience a complete loss of control over their lives and identities, and further complete dehumanization.
Felony Disenfranchisement Restrictions by State, 2021. Retrieved from Jean Chung’s article Voting Rights in the Era of Mass Incarceration: A Primer.
The initiative to reform these policies has been fueled by an effort to reduce their restrictiveness and expand voter eligibility. Significant reforms in felony disenfranchisement policies have been in effect since 1997 at the state level. On April 27th, 2021, Washington D.C. joined Maine, Vermont, and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in extending the right to vote to any resident imprisoned for a felony conviction. The bill cited as “Restore the Vote Amendment Act of 2020”, was passed by the city council in Washington D.C. The legislation in all other states ranges from immediately returning voting rights to all convicted individuals after their prison sentence to fully disenfranchising certain people for life unless they apply for a special exemption. States like Massachusetts and Hawaii are actively working on proposals for similar reforms to proactively restore voting rights for incarcerated individuals.
While some states are taking steps towards reform and away from felony disenfranchisement laws, 5.2 million Americans continue to be locked out of the political process. When we look at this number and break it down by race and ethnicity, it’s undeniable that the discrepancies in the criminal justice system are tied to political participation disparities.