After Incarceration, Democracy?

Every year, about 5.85 million Americans are locked out of the vote. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Approximately 5.85 million people that have paid their debt to society and are productive citizens, aren’t allowed all the privileges of full citizenship. These people are not guilty of voter fraud or any crimes that may warrant this type of punishment. Legislation in forty-eight states, with the exception of Maine and Vermont, exclude convicted felons from voting and the ability to regain this right varies from state to state. Individuals affected by this policy mirror the population found in our prisons and are mainly African American and Latino, effectively barring about 1 out of 13 African Americans from the polls.

This country has a history of voter disenfranchisement, specifically the exclusion of women, slaves and African Americans by the use of Poll Taxes or Literacy Tests during Jim Crow. Still, many people are surprised to learn that in our democracy so many people continue to be locked out of the democratic process. People that made a mistake in their youth are banned from a basic right that is afforded to all other citizens. Though some states have ways of reinstating a convicted felon’s right to vote, it is usually a bureaucratic process filled with red tape that requires time, money and connections. We encourage you to check out these organizations that fight to protect felons from voter disenfranchisement:

  1. The Sentencing ProjectThe Sentencing Project was founded in 1986 to provide defense lawyers with sentencing advocacy training and to reduce the reliance on incarceration. As a result of The Sentencing Project’s research, publications and advocacy, many people know that this country is the world’s leader in incarceration, that one in three young black men is under control of the criminal justice system, that five million Americans can’t vote because of felony convictions, and that thousands of women and children have lost welfare, education and housing benefits as the result of convictions for minor drug offenses.
  2. Formerly Incarcerated and Convicted Peoples Movement – The Formerly Incarcerated & Convicted People’s Movement is committed to fight for the full restoration of civil and human rights for all people, particularly those who have been convicted by the criminal justice system and the communities they represent. The criminal justice system has rendered millions of people, and their families, into an under-caste of society, with no regard for rights or justice.
  3. Project Vote – Project Vote works to empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters. They believe fair and consistent felony re-enfranchisement laws can contribute to the rehabilitation process, and reduce the harmful impact on low-income and minority communities where a disproportionately high number of individuals are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. The right to vote helps to foster a sense of community for those who feel disconnected and unfairly excluded from civic participation.
  4. All of Us or NoneAll of Us or None is a national organizing initiative started by formerly incarcerated people to fight against discrimination faced after release and to fight for the human rights of prisoners. We are determined to win full restoration of our civil and human rights after release from prison. Our goal is to build political power in the communities most affected by mass incarceration and the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex.

by Nicole Johnson

Leave a comment


  1. Nicolas

     /  September 30, 2012

    Great post, the effect on the 5.85 million who are legally excluded is clear; they are with a few exceptions excluded from the democratic process, in addition I think there may also be a strong relation to the voting patterns of the relatives and families of these 5.85 millions. As noted, this population is mainly African American and Latino, the effect on the 42 million African Americans and the 50 million Hispanic and Latino participation while not of a legal nature like that of convicted felons may nonetheless be substantial.
    As noted in this article at Contemporaryfamilies, the effect on the families in general is significant.



  2. Mike K

     /  September 30, 2012

    In Maine and Vermont are there any studies that indicate how formerly incarcerated persons formally participate in elections? Given how many minorities are incarcerated or have been in the correctional system, it would be interesting to see how many formerly incarcerated persons who have had their rights restored participate versus states that allow all voters in elections. I think that in states where they suppress voters who were formerly incarcerated it would be interesting to show how much of an impact these laws have on those who wish to exercise their right to vote. Personally, I believe that the right to vote should be restored automatically if you have successfully served time and have been released. I understand laws aimed at preventing gun ownership, especially where a crime involved a weapon or violent act, but there seems to be no legitimate state interest in preventing voting, and it seems disproportionately aimed at minorities.


  3. Lindsay Smith

     /  October 2, 2012

    I’d be interested to know the nature of the majority of the crimes that these convicted felons were arrested for. It brings up the interesting question of what constitutes the forfeiture of rights? Drug use and distribution? Prostitution? Resisting arrest? Violent crime? I understand the reasoning behind taking away the right to vote from someone who has violated the same laws that they are electing someone to uphold, however there is a lot of grey area for type and severity of crime, age at which crime was committed, mental state under which the crime was committed, etc. I don’t think that an activist who resisted arrest during a protest at age 18 should have the same rights removed as someone who physically and violently assaulted a gas station owner while robbing them. The two seem incredibly mismatched. Thanks for pointing out the organizations that are doing something about the problem!


  4. Jessica Nesbihal

     /  October 3, 2012

    It is encouraging to read about some of the organizations that are fighting to protect against disenfranchisement especially for this specific population. I don’t think that this topic gets quite enough attention. As the voting process in America is constantly becoming more and more corrupt, it is more important than ever that we continue to promote universal access to the polls. The author makes an important point about our country’s persistent history of making it especially difficult for minority groups to vote. The population of Latinos and African Americans is steadily increasing across the US. It is imperative that they are represented accordingly in the voting pool. Without the help of organizations such as the ones listed here, it can seem impossible or useless even for far too many citizens to exercise the right to vote.


  5. Danielle T

     /  October 3, 2012

    The distinction between felonies and misdemeanors vary from state to state; meaning robbery may be a felony in one state but a misdemeanor in another. However I believe that people would agree that some felonies are subjective. Depending on how the police officers feels that day (s)he may write up the report as disorderly conduct, which is considered a misdemeanor, or write you up for drunkenness, which may be considered as a felony. What about drug abuse? If someone is addict does it mean that they cannot be reformed? Should a recovered addict have his/her right to vote taken away because they were once abusing drugs? I do not believe so. These are only some circumstances, but regardless of how old a person was when they committed the crime or what type of crime they committed, I don’t believe that felons who have served their time deserve to be further punished by not being able to vote.


  6. Voter disenfranchisement laws are different in each state, some being more severe than others. In Florida, someone can write a fraudulent check for 500 dollars, be sent to jail for a felony and never be able to vote again. What is important to note is that the majority of states that have the harshest voter disenfranchisement happen to be in the south. You can look in the sentencing project for data or check out this link from the Huffington Post called Enfranchising Ex-Felons:
    I will have a new blog post up soon on progressive pupil dedicated to Voter disenfranchisement for more links. Thanks for posting I think this issue is important to our current election and needs to become more publicized.



  7. Malika

     /  October 27, 2012

    Nicole, thank you for your post. Although it is somewhat embarrassing to admit, I had no idea that this legislation exists, and certainly wasn’t expecting it to be so prevalent across the country. Learning about these blockades to voting rights, through reading your blog post, brought up two particular issues for me that I think are worth sharing. First, much of the chatter around this year’s election has been focused on the “undecided voters” of America. With this is mind, it is shocking to me that there is so much energy being given to getting those people who are unsure about their place in the democratic process to pick a side; and all the while there are literally millions of people who do not have the power to exercise their right to choose, and to be heard. Second, another mainstay of this year’s election has been around the issue of gun control laws. According to The Law Center to Prevent gun Violence, approximately 100,000 Americans are victims of gun violence each year. Additionally, almost 40 percent of homicides are the result of the use of a firearm. Understanding these facts, one would hope that allowing those individuals who have served time and sought absolution for their actions would be given the opportunity to express their views on how crimes can be lessened and how the experience of incarceration can be avoided. As with many of the issues of inequalities in this country, we know all too well that one must always take into account the larger social constructs that are creating the barriers to entry for certain groups of people in this country. In my opinion, it is not a coincidence that the largest group of those incarcerated are Black men; it is a reflection of the larger social injustices that exist in the United States.


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