Criminal Disenfranchisement: US still lagging behind

by Eve Robert // Published September 26, 2008

A person who is deprived of freedom should not be deprived of his basic human rights. Yet in the US, in the last election, 4.7 million citizens were disenfranchised due to their status as felons or ex felons.

In some states (Kentucky and Virginia), all felons, regardless of the nature of their crimes, are disenfranchised for life. This also used to be the case in Florida, but in April 2007, the governor and Clemency Board moved to restore voting rights to individuals convicted of non-violent offenses who have completed their prison term, probation and parole, and paid court fees – however, the implementation of this new rule still leaves much to be desired. In Alabama, because of the lack of a public and definitive list of crimes involving disenfranchisement, most felons and ex-felons assume that they have lost the right to vote. In these 4 states alone, 1.5 million citizens, 1/3 of whom are African-American, are currently disenfranchised.

In others (such as Arizona or Mississippi for instance), they are permanently prohibited from voting only if they have been convicted of certain types of felonies or convicted a certain number of times. In the majority of states, felons are only banned from voting for a set period of time, and their right to vote is restored once they are released from prison or a set period later. However, this period can last up to 2 years, in some states-- Nebraska being one example. Only 2 States, Maine and Vermont, currently allow incarcerated felons to vote. In short, the United States is lagging far behind the rest of the free world on the issue of felon and ex-felon disenfranchisement.

In contrast, other countries are bringing forward this issue and reforming their penal law to make it more protective of prisoners' human rights. Indeed, prisoners' having the right to vote is quickly becoming the norm. A series of court decisions and legislative reforms around the world has enshrined the right to vote as an inalienable and often constitutional entitlement. This was the case in South Africa in 1999,in Canada in 2002, and in Australia in 2007, where the Constitutional Courts granted the right to vote to all prisoners. In march 2004, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the British government was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in his refusal to grant prisoners the right to vote. The United Kingdom is now compelled to change its law.

The next step, in many countries, is a new wave of reforms aimed at actually putting into practice this prisoners' right to vote. This is the case in France, where a Prisoners' Rights Act is currently under examination in Congress. In this country, prisoners are legally allowed to vote. Prohibitions exist (for a maximum of 10 years), but they only apply to felons convicted of specific crimes--often electoral crimes and/or whose court sentence specifically included a restriction on voting rights. However, very often prisoners face difficulties when trying to register to vote since they have no place of residence. The Prisoner's Rights Act enables the prisoners to register in the electoral polls in the county where they are remanded prisoners, by declaring their penitentiary as their legal residence. Other countries have implemented practical reforms to technically allow prisoners to cast a ballot. In Canada, there are voting stations in prisons, and prisoners vote 10 days before regular polling day by special (absentee type) ballot. Prisoners can register to vote and vote in their 'home' electoral district, in the electoral district where their spouse or partner lives, or the electoral district in which they were arrested or convicted. In New Zealand, polling teams visit the prisons on Election Day. Ireland allows prisoners to cast postal votes, proxies or absentee ballots. The US is hardly in keeping with the international standard. It obviously missed the boat. It is time to catch up.

For state-by-state facts and figures about felon disenfranchisement, have a look at the Sentencing Project website