The right to vote and to cast a free and secret ballot is supposed to be the cornerstone of democracy. Yet, upwards of 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of a past felony conviction. In fact, people with felony convictions are banned from voting by law. While Maine and Vermont allow all residents to vote, even residents serving time in jail, every other state has enacted laws that ban those serving time from voting. Two states, Virginia and Kentucky, permanently disenfranchise people convicted of felonies even after they have served their time.
The exclusion of lawbreakers from the political process dates back hundreds of years. Colonial law incorporated provisions that restricted or eliminated the rights of felons to vote. However, today's laws that restrict voting rights owe their history to the post-civil war reconstruction era. Southern states in particular worried about the potential effects of the15th amendment, which gave African Americans the right to vote. These states enacted a series of "Jim Crow" laws, such as poll taxes and literacy requirements, as a means to disenfranchise voters. Banning people with felony convictions from voting significantly limits the number of African-Americans who can vote. According to the Sentencing Project, "1.4 million African American men, or 13% of black men, is disenfranchised, a rate seven-times the national average."
Over the last few years, advocates of felon voting rights have helped to successfully dismantle some laws, but the fight continues and millions of citizens every election are unable to vote because they have a felony conviction on their record.
To learn more about felon disenfranchisement visit The Sentencing Project.