AP Photo/Bryan Woolston
Voting Rights Restored for Justice-Involved

Thousands more people with felony convictions will be eligible to participate in 2020 elections

In November 2018, an estimated one in three Black men in Kentucky was unable to vote because of a felony record, the legacy of a “tough on crime” era that disproportionately policed and penalized Black communities.Michael Wines, “Why So Many Kentuckians Are Barred from Voting on Tuesday, and for Life,” New York Times, November 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/04/us/felony-vote-disenfranchisement-kentucky-florida.html.But the landscape of voting in Kentucky—and many other states—will be vastly different by the 2020 election. In December, Kentucky’s new governor, Andy Beshear, signed an executive order that will restore voting rights to more than 140,000 Kentuckians who have completed sentences for nonviolent felonies.Crystal Staley, “Gov. Beshear Restores Voting Rights to More Than 140,000 Kentuckians,” press release (Frankfort, KY: Kentucky.gov, December 12, 2019), https://perma.cc/MVZ3-586T; and Michael Wines, “Kentucky Gives Voting Rights to Some 140,000 Former Felons,” New York Times, December 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/12/us/kentucky-felons-voting-rights.html.That same week, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a law restoring voting rights for around 80,000 people on probation or parole in the state, which has the highest rate of racial disparities in the nation among its prison population.New Jersey AB 5823 (2019), https://perma.cc/ZF99-8KYS; Daniel Nichanian, “One Week’s Work: New Jersey and Kentucky Restore Voting Rights to More Than 200,000,” The Appeal, December 18, 2019, https://perma.cc/5AR5-5WMX; and Vanessa Romo, “New Jersey Governor Signs Bills Restoring Voting Rights to More Than 80,000 People,” https://perma.cc/X6MY-7PVN.

Nationwide, 6.1 million Americans could not vote in the 2016 presidential election because of felony convictions.Christopher Uggen, Ryan Larson, and Sarah Shannon, 6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016 (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2016), https://perma.cc/BXH5-NDTU. For an overview of felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States, see ACLU, “Felony Disenfranchisement Laws (Map),” accessed December 16, 2019, https://perma.cc/3ZEY-9CCA.And the statistic is even grimmer when it is broken down by race: one in 13 Black Americans was ineligible to vote in 2019 because of a criminal record; compared to one in 56 Americans of all other races combined.The Sentencing Project, “Felony Disenfranchisement,” https://perma.cc/GZU8-WLMZ; and Jean Chung, Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2019), https://perma.cc/PQ5N-S48P.But that is changing: although Iowa failed to pass legislation in 2019 that would have re-enfranchised people with felony convictions, it is now the last state in the nation with a blanket ban on voting for those who have served felony sentences.Julia Shanahan, “Lawmakers at a Crossroads on Criminal Justice,” Daily Iowan, April 30, 2019, https://perma.cc/H3F5-CGBW; and Rachel Frazin, “Iowa Now Only State Barring Felons from Voting after Kentucky Gov Signs Exec Order,” The Hill, December 13, 2019, https://perma.cc/QV42-Q3QL.(Iowa restored voting rights to people who completed felony sentences via executive order in 2005, but the order was rescinded in 2011.)Shanahan, “Lawmakers at a Crossroads,” 2019.

Whether by order or legislation, thousands of people with conviction histories found themselves eligible to vote in 2019—some for the first time. In March, Louisiana’s 2018 reforms went into effect, allowing 36,000 people—thousands more than had been initially estimated—to register to vote.Elizabeth Crisp, “Thousands of Felons in Louisiana Will Regain Voting Rights When This Law Takes Effect March 1,” The Advocate, February 15, 2019, https://perma.cc/CJ2J-2JFP.In Nevada, some 77,000 people who had been released from prison or discharged from parole or probation had their voting rights restored in May.Nevada AB 431 (2019), https://perma.cc/MLH5-BEGV; and Daniel Moritz-Rabson, “Nevada Gives 77,000 Ex-Felons Right to Vote in 2020,” Newsweek, May 30, 2019, https://perma.cc/4RV6-PC8F.Going forward, Nevadans convicted of felonies will now have their right to vote restored automatically on release rather than having to petition a court.Nevada AB 431 (2019); and Nevada Secretary of State Barbara K. Cegavske, “Restoration of Voting Rights in Nevada,” https://perma.cc/86X6-AM2W.In Illinois, legislation that failed in 2018 finally passed in August; the new laws provide education to incarcerated people about their voting rights and require counties with at least three million people to make voting by mail accessible in their jails.Illinois HB 2541 (2019) (voting rights), https://perma.cc/8JVM-3HDB; and Illinois SB 2090 (2019) (vote by mail), https://perma.cc/ME9A-GUUE. Also see Matt Masterson, “New Bill Educates Illinois Prisoners on Voting Rights after Release,” WTTW, August 21, 2019, https://perma.cc/6Y86-KS9E; and Sam Levine, “Illinois Lawmakers Approve Bill to Make It Easier for People in Jail to Vote,” HuffPost, May 30, 2019, https://perma.cc/7JND-LB78.In Colorado, bipartisan efforts delivered a major reform package in May as the legislative session came to a close.Elise Schmelzer, “Swath of Legislation Reforming Colorado’s Criminal Justice System to Affect Tens of Thousands,” Denver Post, May 7, 2019, https://perma.cc/3W4J-ZQ49.Among its provisions: the state will allow people serving parole to vote.Jesse Paul, “11,467 Colorado Parolees Can Now Vote after New Law Goes Into Effect,” Colorado Sun, July 1, 2019, https://perma.cc/WV6W-2G99. For a roundup of many of the most important bills, see Terri Hurst, “2019 Legislative Session Wrapup,” Colorado Justice Report, Spring 2019, 2-3, https://perma.cc/58EF-TW7R.And as of July, incarcerated people in Washington State will be notified of their voting rights before release.Washington SB 5207 (2019), https://perma.cc/4M4S-GCGX.

But there were also setbacks. Florida made the news in 2018 when a supermajority of voters approved Amendment 4 to the state constitution, which restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million people with prior felony convictions.Florida Amendment 4, Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative (2018), https://perma.cc/XF5Q-SCHJ; and German Lopez, “One in 10 Potential Florida Voters Can’t Legally Vote. Amendment 4 Could Change That,” Vox, November 6, 2018, https://perma.cc/9YX8-7Z2C. People with felony convictions for murder or sexual offenses were excluded from re-enfranchisement under this amendment.But in 2019, the state legislature pulled back from the voter-approved initiative, imposing conditions that limited the right to vote to people who had not only been released from imprisonment, but who also were not under any ordered supervision, had made full payment of any ordered restitution, and had paid any court-ordered fines, fees, or costs.Florida SB 7066 (2019), https://perma.cc/V8NP-KKHF; and Patricia Mazzei, “Floridians Gave Ex-Felons the Right to Vote. Lawmakers Just Put a Big Obstacle in Their Way,” New York Times, May 3, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/us/florida-felon-voting-amendment-4.html.The governor and advocates for the initiative have taken the battle to court over the provision requiring all fines and fees to be paid before voting, a condition that advocates estimate would disenfranchise 80 percent of the people intended to benefit from the new law.Jones v. DeSantis, No. 4:19-cv-300-RH-CAS (N.D. Fla., filed 2019), https://perma.cc/32EW-W2NZ. For estimates of disenfranchisement, see Jones v. DeSantis, No. 4:19-cv-300-RH-CAS (N.D. Fla., August 2, 2019) (Plaintiffs’ Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction or, in the Alternative, for Further Relief), 30-31 and Exhibit A, https://perma.cc/69UE-MTCY. Also see Michael Wines, “Judge Temporarily Blocks Florida Law Restricting Voting by Ex-Felons,” New York Times, October 18, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/18/us/felons-vote-fine-florida.html.In December, the court modified an earlier ruling, allowing people with outstanding fines and fees to register to vote.Jones v. DeSantis, No. 4:19-cv-300-RH-CAS (N.D. Fla., December 19, 2019) (Order Staying the Preliminary Injunction in Part), https://perma.cc/D4QH-ZSCQ; and Dara Kam, “Judge Says Convicted Felons in Amendment 4 Lawsuit Can Register But Cannot Vote—Yet,” Sun Sentinel, December 20, 2019, https://perma.cc/T7GY-MTRX; and Gary Fineout, “Judge: DeSantis Can't Have It Both Ways on Felon Voting Rights,” POLITICO, December 3, 2019, https://perma.cc/A9UC-U77P.But in January 2020, the state Supreme Court, in response to a request from Governor DeSantis, issued an advisory opinion stating that the drafters of Amendment 4 had intended that people must pay their fines and fees before voting.Jones v. DeSantis, No. SC19-1341 (Fla. January 16, 2020), https://perma.cc/WMY5-HVVB; and Tax Axelrod, “Florida Supreme Court Rules Convicted Felons Must Pay Fines, Fees Before Voting,” The Hill, January 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/6SCV-A95J.While state court—even state supreme court—opinions do not always affect federal cases, a federal court such as the one overseeing the Amendment 4 litigation will often use those opinions as the basis for interpreting state laws.

But the battle for voting rights in Florida is far from over, and it's being fought at the county level. Even if it turns out that people must pay off fines and fees before registering to vote, the new law contains a waiver provision allowing them to request relief from those fees from the court.Daniel Rivero, “Florida Faces A Rocky Rollout To Restore Voting Rights After Felony Convictions,” NPR, January 8, 2020, https://perma.cc/X9WG-QVDR.Some counties, such as Miami-Dade and Broward, have already implemented a waiver hearing process which enables people to have their fines and fees cleared.Ibid.But in the vast majority of counties, no similar process has been initiated. Without help from the counties, potential voters are left to wait for a court decision which is likely to be issued beyond the voter registration deadline for 2020 and perhaps even past the 2020 election.Sabrina Conza, “Florida Supreme Court Sides With DeSantis In Felon Voter Rights Case,” WUFT, January 16, 2020, https://perma.cc/9JAM-Q3AS.