Over 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:
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:
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:
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:
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.