More States Are Restoring Voting Rights for Formerly Incarcerated People, and That’s a Very Good Thing

Karina Schroeder Former Communications Manager // Kevin Keenan Former Vice President, Innovation & New Initiatives
Nov 06, 2017

Update January 23, 2018: Today, the State of Florida—one of the most restrictive states in allowing people with felony convictions to regain the right to vote—moved one step closer to restoring rights to up to one million people. The Voting Restoration Amendment—a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for most people convicted of nonviolent crimes—reached the 766,200 signature threshold to be placed on the ballot in November.

This Election Day, Americans will go to the polls to cast their votes and make their voices heard. But not everyone will be able to vote.

Thousands of people who want to vote will be denied this right because of their criminal histories. While laws differ from state to state, an estimated 2.5 percent of Americans—6.1 million voters—are disenfranchised due to past felony convictions. In many states, this includes people who have served their time in prison, yet can’t vote because they are still on probation or parole. In four states—Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Iowa—regaining the right to vote is so onerous that formerly incarcerated people are essentially barred for life from exercising this civic right. 

Some states—both red and blue—have started to change this. If we care about reintegrating people who have been incarcerated into society, we should want more states to follow suit. 

Stripping people of this basic right is not only bad for the people it affects and their communities—it’s also bad for democracy. After all, democracy thrives—and survives—on participation. 

In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe individually restored the rights of around 13,000 formerly incarcerated people—with the goal of restoring thousands more before the end of his term. And, earlier this year, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a law restoring voting rights for thousands of people. Across the country, a total of 49 pieces of legislation were introduced in 16 states during last year’s legislative session to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people who have served their sentences.

There is even bipartisan support for reform at the federal level. Republican Rand Paul—along with numerous Democrats—has expressed support for restoring voting rights to people who are formerly incarcerated. 

Not only is the restoration of voting rights a benefit to our democracy, it's also a benefit to those who are personally impacted. While community support is essential to a person's successful reentry after incarceration, this support is—in large part—dependent on a person's ability to engage in their community in the first place. One of the most essential ways this can happen is through the ballot box, giving a voice and agency to the person casting a vote. Voting also has the power to bind community members together as a shared civic experience. 

Formerly incarcerated people already face significant hurdles to reentry, including difficulty finding employment, maintaining stable housing, and reestablishing connections with their families and communities. These barriers can exacerbate feelings of isolation, shame, and frustration—which in turn can lead to increased criminal activity. 

Rather than compounding barriers to reentry, we must give formerly incarcerated people every opportunity to regain the community and family support necessary to succeed after their release. This is in everyone's interest, given that 95 percent of incarcerated people will eventually return home. 

The right to vote is a fundamental tenet of democracy. Those who have paid their debt to society deserve the opportunity for a second chance and a chance to reintegrate as full participants in civic life.