Every election, over 5 million Americans are disenfranchised by state laws that prevent people with felony convictions from voting. An even greater number do not vote because they mistakenly think their voting rights have been stripped away by these laws.
How did we get here? In the period after the American Civil War, known as Reconstruction, Congress amended the Constitution to grant the right to vote to every male citizen. Rather than uphold the newly-gained constitutional rights of Black men, many former confederate legislatures instead chose to get creative and find ways to undermine those rights.
In the 1870s, nearly every state under Reconstruction amended its constitution or revised its laws to strip voting rights away from newly enfranchised Black voters for crimes as minor as stealing food. Over the next few decades, states added more hurdles to voting, such as literacy tests and poll taxes. All of this was part of the Jim Crow system that prevented Black Americans from participating in our democracy.
While some of these Jim Crow policies, like literacy tests, are gone, many remain—including felony disenfranchisement. These disenfranchisement policies disproportionately impact Black and brown Americans. One in 16 Black Americans above the age of 18 is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction. In some states, as many as one in seven Black adults can’t vote.
Laws that disenfranchise Americans with a felony conviction are a racist relic, and it’s time for them to go. There has been some progress towards eliminating these laws, but we still have a lot of work to do.
Today, all but two states still have laws that restrict citizens’ right to vote if they are convicted of a felony. 75 percent of those disenfranchised by these laws have completed their prison sentence and are back home in their communities, where they raise families, work jobs, and pay taxes—just like every other American. Others are still incarcerated, many with children back home who are denied a voice because their mothers or fathers have lost their right to vote. Some are barred from voting for life.
If they live in a state where voting rights are restored after completing their sentence, formerly incarcerated citizens can still face a long road to gaining their rights back, often dealing with bureaucracy, fines, or so much uncertainty about their voting status that they simply don’t vote out of fear that they will get in trouble.
Citizenship does not stop at the prison gates, and neither should the right to vote. It’s time for every state to end this Jim Crow relic and protect the voting rights of every American.
The Path to Victory
In recent years, a growing grassroots movement has made important strides to ensure no one has their right to vote taken away. Since 1997, 10 states have reformed their felony disenfranchisement laws—and in 2020, Washington, D.C. became the first jurisdiction in the country to restore full voting rights to people in prison.
There’s momentum in state legislatures. But we need to keep pushing. The fight for universal voting rights will involve years of fighting. Text RESTORE to 63033 or fill out the form below to pledge to get involved in the rights restoration fight today.