Jurisdictions Should Embrace Voting Rights for All Americans—Including Those Who Are Incarcerated

Voting In Prison Full
Americans do not lose their citizenship when convicted of a crime, and the U.S. Constitution gives states the power to let people in prison vote.

But even for people convicted and currently serving time in prison, there is a hint of progress. In 2016, California passed a law allowing people convicted of felonies but serving their time in county jails—rather than state prisons—to vote starting in 2017 (AB 2466). People serving time in state prison for the same offenses, however, remain disenfranchised. A ballot initiative to restore voting rights to people in prison and on parole in California failed to gain enough signatures to get on the ballot in 2018 but Initiate Justice, the organization backing the bill, is continuing to educate the public on why we should not disenfranchise any American.

New Jersey is also considering legislation to allow prison voting (S2100), and Virginia has introduced legislation to amend its constitution (HJ 598).

“There is no relationship between voting and committing crimes. To disenfranchise those who have made mistakes and are paying for them is wrong,” said New Jersey Senator Ronald Rice. Racial equity is an important motivator as well. “As a result of racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, half of those denied the right to vote are black, even though black people make up only 15 percent of the state’s total population,” noted Ryan Haygood, President and CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“The vote is basic to citizenship, the main building block of civic life, and it belongs to the people,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastañaga. “Rather than focus on the questions of whether and when someone deserves to get back the right to vote, as we have for decades, we need to oppose the very idea that government should be able to take away this fundamental right in the first place.”

In Ohio, the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed giving people in prison the vote, arguing it would allow people to “maintain their connections to society as members of the communities they call home.”

This feeling of connection to the civic right and duty to vote was affirmed by several voters incarcerated in Vermont and Maine prisons. “To be able to vote made me feel as part of a community, like that I’m not just a convict, that I’m a human being,” one person told a reporter in 2016. Another said, “It was one thing I could do that I can have control of, the one thing that could let me feel that I can make a difference in something. . . . I grew up in prison and voting helped me learn responsibility.” It led him to discuss politics and form bonds with correctional officers and other incarcerated people.

Whether one’s motivation is that voting should be an inalienable part of civic rights and duties, to promote racial equity, or to enhance successful reentry, let’s hope that more jurisdictions embrace voting rights, both in and out of prison.


States Continue to Make Progress on Restoring Voting Rights for People with Conviction Histories

This year, one ballot measure in Florida is poised to restore voting rights to more than 1 million people in what would be the largest increase in the U.S. electorate since 18 to 21 year olds secured the right to vote. Florida’s Amendment 4, if passed by 60 percent of Florida voters, will restore voting rights for approximately 1.4 million people w ...

Blog Post
  • Karina Schroeder
    Karina Schroeder
  • Kevin  Keenan
    Kevin Keenan
November 01, 2018
Blog Post

Majority of Americans Say Voting Rights Should be Restored for People with Felony Convictions

Most Americans believe that people with conviction histories should have their voting rights restored as soon as they’ve completed their sentences, according to a new poll from YouGov/Huffington Post. A solid majority—63 percent—of those surveyed agreed that people with felony convictions should not be permanently barred from voting. This consensus ...

Blog Post
  • Karina Schroeder
    Karina Schroeder
March 22, 2018
Blog Post