Felon disenfranchisement

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In 2004, 5.3 million Americans were denied the right to vote because of laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.[1] In all but two states (Maine & Vermont), felons are deprived of voting rights while serving their sentence. In ten states, felons are deprived of voting rights for life. [2] In the remaining 34 states, felons' voting rights are restored at some point after their sentence has been completed.

US exceptionalism

Although some countries deny voting rights to prison inmates, the United States is unique in restricting the rights of nonincarcerated former felons.[3] In Finland and New Zealand felons are restricted to vote for several years after their release from prison, but only if the offender was convicted of voting-related crimes or political corruption, and even then, it is later restored. [4]

US incarceration rates

The United States is also exceptional for the rate at which it issues felony convictions. Felon disenfranchisement has increased dramatically as sentencing rates have surged. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world; 1 out of every 100 Americans are in prison [5], compared with 1 out of every 1,000 Canadians and less than .5 of every 1,000 Japanese. [6]

Extent of disenfranchisement

Loss of voting rights often occurs even without incarceration. In Florida, an offender who receives probation for a single marijuana sale faces a lifetime of disenfranchisement. [7] All told, in 2000, Florida legally deprived more than 827,200 citizens who had been convicted of felonies of the right to vote. This represented more than 7% of the Florida voting-age population. And that figure happens to include 31% of the state’s voting-age African-American males. [8]

De facto disenfranchisement

It's not just the actual laws relating to felon voting that cause disenfranchisement. Hundreds of thousands of eligible voters may be unaware of their rights due to poor information provided by state and local election officials. According to an October, 2008 report on "de facto disenfranchisement",(summary)(download PDF) co-published by the Brennan Center for Justice and the ACLU, one major hurdle in the US is confusion even among election officials about the laws in their area. The report states:

Across the country there is persistent confusion among election officials about their state's felony disenfranchisement policies. Election officials receive little or no training on these laws, and there is little or no coordination or communication between election offices and the criminal justice system. These factors, coupled with complex laws and complicated registration procedures, result in the mass dissemination of inaccurate and misleading information, which in turn leads to the de facto disenfranchisement of untold hundreds of thousands of eligible would-be voters throughout the country.

De facto disenfranchisement has devastating long-term effects in communities across the

country. Once a single local election official misinforms a citizen that he is not eligible to vote because of a past conviction, it is unlikely that citizen will ever follow up or make a second inquiry. Without further public education or outreach, the citizen will mistakenly believe that he is ineligible to vote for years, decades, or maybe the rest of his life. And that same citizen may pass along that same inaccurate information to his peers, family members and neighbors, creating a lasting ripple of de facto disenfranchisement

across his community.

Racial discrimination

Loss of voting privileges in Florida is not simply a collateral consequence of a felony conviction. Denial of voting privilege has been used historically as a means to suppress black political power. Most states first adopted a felon disenfranchisement statute during Reconstruction when the Fifteenth Amendment and its extension of voting rights to African-Americans were ardently contested.[9]

Racial motivations were openly admitted throughout the South. At the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, John B. Knox, president of this gathering, warned the assembled white people of “the menace of negro domination.” As a remedy, he advocated “manipulation of the ballot” by expanding the state’s disenfranchisement law to include crimes of “moral turpitude,” crimes that included misdemeanors, and even actions that were not punishable by law. [10] And in 1916, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld the state’s felon disenfranchisement law and ruled, “Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its criminal members are prone.” [11]

Impact on US elections

The impact has been decisive in important elections. In 2000, George W. Bush won the presidency because he prevailed in Florida by only 537 votes. But sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza estimated that 155,000 of the state's disenfranchised felons would have voted for Al Gore in 2000 and 70,000 would have voted for Bush, resulting in 85,000 net votes -- and a decisive victory -- for Gore.[12]

Because of increasing incarceration rates, the impact of felon disenfranchisement has been increasing. Uggen and Manza calculate that if former felons had been disenfranchised in 1960 at 2000 rates, John F. Kennedy’s 119,000-popular-vote victory margin in the 1960 presidential election would have disintegrated, and Richard Nixon would have won with a plurality of more than 100,000 votes. [13]

Illicit impact on US elections

States have also used felon-disenfranchisement laws as pretext for voter (registration) roll purges that also disenfranchise non-felons. A particularly notorious and consequential example of Voter role purge in the 2000 Florida election was the Florida 2000 Database Technologies (DBT) purge of 82,389 mostly African-American, more than 90% of whom should have been eligible to vote. DBT received a no-bid $4 million contract, up from $5,000 for the previous contractor to expand (but not verify) the list. When a DBT employee told Harris's office there were too many names that did not belong, she said she wanted even more, i.e., to lower the "match criterion" percentage from c. 90% to c. 80%. [14]

More than half those wrongly purged were African-Americans, even though African-Americans represent only about 11% of the electorate. In contrast, the purge list contained almost no Hispanics, notwithstanding Florida’s sizable Hispanic population. Because in Florida Hispanics vote mostly Republican and African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic, this illicit purge, justified by ex-felon disenfranchisement laws, tipped Florida, and thereby the US Presidency the from Gore to Bush.[15]

Main article: Voter role purge in the 2000 Florida election

Reform proposals

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy (2006, Oxford University Press)
  2. Fellner and Mauer, “Losing the Vote,” p. 8. Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wyoming. Arizona and Maryland disenfranchise permanently those convicted of a second felony; Tennessee and Washington disenfranchise permanently those convicted prior to 1986 and 1984, respectively. In addition, in Texas a convicted felon’s right to vote is not restored until two years after discharge from prison, probation or parole.
  3. Research by Penal Reform International may be obtained from CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants) in Washington, D.C. Also on file at Human Rights Watch. In Germany the law calls on prisons to encourage prisoners to vote.
  4. The American Series of Foreign Penal Code: Federal Republic of Germany, Title I, § 45 (5). A judge may bar a convicted offender from voting only if the offense is punishable by more than one year of imprisonment and if the crime falls within enumerated sections of the Penal Code covering such crimes as treason, electoral fraud, espionage, membership in an illegal organization.
  5. Adam Lifak 1 in 100 U.S. Adults Behind Bars, New Study SaysNY Times, February 28, 2008
  6. Roy Walmsley, World Prison Population List, No. 116, Research Findings, 3d ed. (London, England: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, 2002).
  7. Uggen and Manza, “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, American Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (December: 777–803), 778 (column 2). They cite Mauer 1997a; U.S. Department of Justice 2002; Walmsley 2002.
  8. Steven F. Freeman and Joel Bleifuss, Was the 2004 Presidential Election Stolen? Exit Polls, Election Fraud, and the Official Count, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2006) Chapter 2. Florida sets the stage.
  9. Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggen, and Jeff Manza, “Ballot Manipulation and the ‘Menace of Negro Domination’: Racial Threat and Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 1850–2002,” AJS 109, no. 3 (November 2003): 559–605.
  10. “Journal of the Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of the State of Alabama” (Montgomery, Ala.: Brown Printing Co., 1901), 12. Cited in Behrens, Uggen, and Manza, “Ballot Manipulation,” 571.
  11. The Free Press, 74 Miss. 266–67, Supreme Court of Mississippi, 1896. Cited in Behrens, Uggen, and Manza, “Ballot Manipulation,” 569.
  12. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States American” Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (December: 777–803). The estimates are based on felon voting rates in other states and the voting behavior of Floridians matching felons in terms of gender, race, age, income, labor-force status, marital status, and education.
  13. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States American” Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (December: 777–803)
  14. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 44–47.
  15. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 44–47. Bush won the official count by only 537 votes; the demographic characteristics of wrongly purged voters suggest a net loss to Gore on the order of 20,000 votes.

External resources



  • The sentencing project mission is to remove barriers to voting by people with felony convictions. Working with state and local partners, the Campaign is engaged in policy reform, litigation, public education, and voter registration both nationally and in targeted states.


  • Erika Bloom, Restoring the Right to Vote, Brennan Center for Justice, Feb 26, 2008.
  • Liz Budnitz, Voter Education at Rikers Island", Brennan Center for Justice blog, Nov 21, 2008.
  • Angela Behrens, Christopher Uggen, and Jeff Manza, “Ballot Manipulation and the ‘Menace of Negro Domination’: Racial Threat and Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States, 1850–2002,” AJS 109, no. 3 (November 2003): 559–605.
  • Jamie Fellner and Marc Mauer, “Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States” (Washington, D.C.: Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project, 1998) * Christopher Uggen & Jeff Manza. 2004. “Voting and Subsequent Crime and Arrest: Evidence from a Community Sample.” 'Columbia Human Rights Law Review'
  • Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, “Democratic Contraction? Political Consequences of Felon Disenfranchisement in the United States American” Sociological Review, 2002, Vol. 67 (December: 777–803)