Please Note: The following information is provided for background information only. NCSL is unable to assist in or offer advice on the restoration of voting rights. We recommend that anyone interested in obtaining specific information on how to regain voting rights contact election officials in the jurisdiction where the person wishes to register and vote.
Background and History
The idea of taking away a criminal's right to vote has been around since ancient Greece and Rome. A condition called "civil death" in Europe involved the forfeiture of property, the loss of the right to appear in court, and a prohibition on entering into contracts, as well as the loss of voting rights. Civil death was brought to America by English colonists, but most aspects of it were eventually abolished, leaving only felon disenfranchisement intact in some parts of modern America.
Felons and Disenfranchisement
According to The Sentencing Project, 5.3 million Americans (1 in 40 adults) were unable to vote due to a felony conviction in the 2008 elections. This included 1.4 million African-American men, more than 676,000 women, and 2.1 million ex-offenders who have completed their sentences.
Categories of Disenfranchisement
State approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously. In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. In Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia, felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote, without a pardon from the governor. Virginia and Florida have supplementary programs which facilitate gubernatorial pardons. The remaining 45 states have 45 different approaches to the issue.
- In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence.
- In some states, ex-felons must wait for a certain period of time after the completion of their sentence before rights can be restored.
- In some states, an ex-felon must apply to have voting rights restored.
Barriers to the Restoration of Rights
Even in states where ex-offenders automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, the process of re-registering to vote often is difficult. One reason is the complexity of the laws and processes surrounding disenfranchisement. In some cases, it is difficult to determine whose rights can be restored. This can vary in some states according to the date of the crime, the conviction, or the release from prison, or the nature of the crime. The complex restoration process also can be daunting. It often involves lengthy paperwork, burdensome documentation, and the involvement and coordination of several state agencies.
A second barrier to restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders is the often inconsistent communication among agencies. The methods of communicating the loss and restoration of voting rights among courts, corrections and elections officials are not always reliable, timely or consistent. This inconsistency can result in uneven application of the law, even when the laws are clear. Another barrier is lack of information. Ex-offenders sometimes are not aware that they regain their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentence. They go through life believing they cannot vote when, in fact, they can. In other cases, they are not informed of the process for regaining their rights or offered assistance in doing so. As long as they remain ignorant of the necessary steps, ex-offenders cannot begin the process of regaining voting rights.
A final obstacle is under-funding of parole boards in some states where offenders must apply to have their rights restored. A massive backlog of applications can exist because the agencies do not have adequate staff or resources to process them in a timely manner.
Recent State Action
Most--though not all--recent state legislation seeks to expand felon voting rights and ease the process of restoration. Between 1996 and 2008, 28 states passed new laws on felon voting rights.
- Seven repealed lifetime disenfranchisement laws, at least for some ex-offenders.
- Two gave probationers the right to vote.
- Seven improved data-sharing procedures among state agencies.
- Nine passed requirements that ex-offenders be given information and/or assistance in regaining their voting rights at the time they complete their sentence.
- Twelve simplified the process for regaining voting rights, for instance, by eliminating a waiting period or streamlining the paperwork process.
In 2009, Washington restored the right to vote to felons who completed their sentences, while requiring them to re-register to vote.
2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency (composed of the governor and three cabinet members) reversed a 2007 policy change that automatically restored voting rights to non-violent offenders upon the completion of their sentence. The new policy requires that all ex-felons wait between five and seven years before applying to regain voting rights. In Iowa, the governor in 2011 reversed an executive order issued in 2005 under the previous governor. The 2005 order automatically restored the voting rights of all ex-felons, but under the 2011 order they will now have to apply to regain rights. In Tennessee, HB 1117 was enacted, adding to the list of felons who will not be eligible to vote again.
In 2012, South Carolina mandated that felons on probation would not have voting rights restored. Previously, only felons on parole or incarcerated had their voting rights suspended.
In 2013, Delaware eliminated the five-year waiting period before voting rights are restored. In Virginia, then-Governor McDonnell signed an executive order creating new rights restoration processes for persons with prior felony convictions.
In 2015, Wyoming enacted HB 15 requiring the department of corrections to issue a certification of restoration of voting rights to certain non-violent felons who are being released from the state’s prisons.
For more detailed information on state legislation dealing with the voting rights of convicted felons, visit NCSL's 2011-current Election Legislation Database and select the subtopic "Voters-Felon Voting Rights." For legislation from the period 2001-2010, visit NCSL's 2001-2010 Election Legislation Database.
- If you're seeking general information on state policies regarding felon voting rights, please contact NCSL's elections team for more information by email or at 303-364-7700.
- If you're looking for information on how you or someone else can regain the right to vote, NCSL is regretfully unable to help with or offer advice on this process. We suggest that you contact election officials in the appropriate jurisdiction to get the most current and accurate information available, and we wish you the best of luck!
- The Sentencing Project is an advocacy group that offers information on felon disenfranchisement in the states.
- The Restoration of Rights Project, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also provides assistance on felon disenfranchisement.
- If you are seeking information on the process to regain voting rights, please contact an election official in the jurisdiction where you wish to register and vote.