Felons and Voting Rights

PrisonOver the weekend, I was with my nephew who is a social worker. He works with a lot of people on disability — especially for mental problems. And he mentioned that people who had committed felonies in California could not vote. That came as a surprise to me. I told him that I had spent more time going over the California voter registration form than any sane man would. And I thought I would know. My understanding was that as long as a felon was not under state care (prison, parole, or probation), she could vote. He responded that he had read it somewhere, but he was glad I countered him on it because he wasn’t sure.

It turns out that I was wrong — but only because I was being too harsh. According to Nonprofit VOTE’s Voting as an Ex-Offender, page, in California:

Individuals convicted of a felony are ineligible to vote while incarcerated and on parole. Voting rights are automatically restored upon completion of parole, and people on probation can vote. Ex-offenders should re-register to vote.

The truth is that it is generally possible for ex-felons to vote, although some states make it really hard. But before we get to them, let’s discuss the way that our voting system should work. In Maine and Vermont even people in prison vote. I know that this idea is shocking to many people. Think about my nephew for a moment: he’s a social worker who is studying criminal justice and even he had fallen into the trap of thinking the default was that ex-felons couldn’t vote.

There is a widely held belief that not only can ex-felons not vote, but that they shouldn’t be able to vote. And that goes along with our incredibly punitive society. Somehow, throwing a woman in jail for a decade because she was caught with a small amount of cannabis in Florida is not enough. She also has to be effectively forbidden from ever having a good job again. She can’t be allowed on public assistance. And she can never vote again. It’s just madness, and, I think, indicative of just what a horrible people we are.

But there are a whole lot of states where your past doesn’t matter. If you are out of prison, you can vote. These include:

The District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Utah.

It’s interesting that even in a number of conservative western states, we get more liberal policy. I think this is part of the tradition of the west: people make mistakes but they should be allowed to get on their their lives. Interestingly, it is only liberal states who don’t let parolees vote: California, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York. That’s actually not a good idea. Voting is one of the ways that you welcome a person back into polite society. A parole officer could demand that the parolee register and vote.

Next we get to the states where the ex-felon has to be totally free of the system. I think this is bad, but acceptable:

Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

And now we get to some really punitive and vile states. But it gets complicated. And that’s part of the problem. None of these states automatically give back voting rights. Here is a list of the states where you can get your voting rights back as long as you didn’t commit certain felonies:

Alabama, Delaware, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Wyoming.

In general, those felonies are pretty bad: murder, rape, etc. But not always. There are things like bribery and voter fraud. And Mississippi is totally bizarre. They have 21 specific crimes that stop you have getting your voting rights back. Some of them are fairly minor like check fraud. But here’s the weird part: if you weren’t convicted of one of these felonies, you can vote while in jail. But in all these states, ex-felons have to fill out paper work and run the bureaucratic gauntlet and pay fees.

The last states are just completely vile: Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia. In these states (and the previous ones if you have committed the wrong kind of felony), you have to file and individual petition on get a pardon from the governor. And in general, you have to wait years before you can even apply (also true of some of the previous group).

The system is terrible. For one thing, where’s the equal treatment in this? Ex-felon Floridians can’t vote in a presidential election but ex-felon Californians can? That isn’t fair. We really do need a constitutional right to vote.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

5 thoughts on “Felons and Voting Rights

  1. I believe in many countries you can vote from jail. But then again, those countries are often imprisoning people who look like everyone else. Once you imprison people who look different, humanity goes down the garbage chute.

    Speaking of which, I just tonight caught this Key & Peele. It’s a nice musical number (no writer of sound mind has ever NOT wanted to do a musical number) but it’s the coda line which absolutely devastates.


    • That was amazing. The writing was great and the denouement worked quite well. But I also loved the art direction. I’ve never really grown up when it comes to colors. I like bright primary colors — especially reds. Those two are just wonderful. It’s the Mr Show of its generation. I just hope that they turn out to be more Fry and Laurie where they keep coming back together over the years to do new stuff.

      • I can’t imagine they won’t do more work together. They were bored FBI partners in the TV show version of “Fargo” (and, during a climactic raid, they were killed first, which I suspect was a sly joke.)

        Fry and Laurie is a great comparison. I’d love to see Key & Peele in something like “Jeeves & Wooster” or “Black Adder.” It’s terrific that their show was a success for the only reason success is valuable — it means they’ll have more freedom to choose what they write next.

        • I hadn’t actually thought about that, but that would be good. I was referring to how Fry and Laurie did sketch comedy shows many times separated by years. I’m hoping for the same thing from Mitchell and Web since for whatever reason, That Mitchell and Webb Look wasn’t renewed by the BBC. It might have something to do with this:


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