For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Republicans Should Get on Board and Back Felon Voting Rights.”
In last year’s elections, more than 4.6 million Americans found themselves unable to vote due to a felony conviction. No other country bars so many people from voting because of their history with the criminal legal system. America is an outlier.
This exclusion from the ballot box disproportionately affects Black and Latinx citizens. In 2022, more than 1.5 million voting-eligible Black Americans and at least half of a million voting-eligible Latinx Americans were banned from voting nationwide.
A new report from The Sentencing Project makes a compelling case to re-enfranchise justice-impacted individuals so that all citizens can participate in our democracy: Having the right to vote and the act of voting is related to increased community safety.
The report offers a wealth of research on the topic. For example:
—Justice-impacted individuals whose voting rights were restored post-incarceration were 10 percent less likely to recidivate than their counterparts in states that continued to restrict voting rights post-incarceration.
—In multiple studies, justice-impacted individuals said they connected their right to vote to their intention and perceived ability to remain law-abiding.
—Being denied the right to vote also shaped their community re-entry experiences. Being banned from voting made justice-impacted individuals feel ostracized — like they were not community members. They wanted a say in the laws and policies governing their lives and communities.
These felony voting bans affect real people, our fellow citizens. For example, take Justin Allen, who served 17 years in New Mexico’s prison system. After restoring his voting rights, Allen says: “It meant I was no longer state property. It meant I was a citizen.” He emphasizes that voting is “like welcoming people back into society and letting people know that we belong here.”
There is a racist history underlying laws that ban citizens from voting because of a felony conviction. Many of these laws are rooted in the post-Civil War era when Southern states aimed to suppress the political power of Black Americans. Many were explicitly designed to target Black voters and prevent them from exercising their right to vote. We see the erosion of Black political power continue today. In eight states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Dakota, Tennessee and Virginia — more than 10 percent of their voting-eligible Black citizens cannot vote because of felony voting bans.
States around the country are recognizing the role the right to vote can have as a strategy to improve community safety, bolster community reintegration and enhance America’s democracy. This year, Minnesota and New Mexico restored the right to vote for more than 57,000 people under probation or parole. In 2020, the District of Columbia joined Maine, Vermont and Puerto Rico in allowing people who are incarcerated because of a felony conviction to vote.
Now is the time for us to build on this momentum and work toward building a country where every citizen has the right to vote — regardless of their involvement in the criminal legal system.
It will make our democracy stronger and our nation more just — it is another strategy we can use to make our communities safer.