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WHERE THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM BLOCKS AMERICANS’ RIGHT TO VOTE. Some U.S. states have changed rules to restore voting rights for people with felony convictions. But many may not even realize they’re eligible. 

By Peyton Forte November 2, 2020

Fewer Americans convicted of felonies will be barred from voting this year thanks to rule changes in many U.S. states, but a lack of information around those reforms may still stop people from heading to the polls, according to criminal justice advocacy groups.

The Sentencing Project estimates more than 5 million could be barred from voting on Tuesday because of felony convictions, down from 6 million in 2016. At the same time, the number of formerly incarcerated people eligible to vote has increased to as many as 18 million — more than the entire population of Pennsylvania, according to the Campaign Legal Center. While both nonprofits have created resources to help people determine their eligibility to vote, misinformation and the complexity of state-by-state laws remain barriers for those who have had their rights restored.

“Millions of Americans believe that felony convictions permanently take away your right to vote,” said Blair Bowie, Restore Your Vote manager for the Campaign Legal Center. “Unfortunately, this belief is sometimes perpetuated by misinformed corrections officials or local elections staff who wrongly tell people they cannot vote. Other times, felony disenfranchisement laws are too confusing.” 

Some states like Arizona and Mississippi actually do permanently disenfranchise those convicted of certain offenses, while Vermont, Maine and Washington, D.C. impose no restrictions, allowing people to vote from prison. Other states fall in between, creating a lack of cohesion and clarity about voting rights across the U.S. 

The Sentencing Project estimates that oneof every 44 American adults — or 2.27% of the total eligible U.S. voting population — is disenfranchised because of a current or previous felony conviction. For Black and Latinx communities, that percentage is much higher, especially in southern, Republican-leaning states. That is often by design, says Sean Morales-Doyle from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan legal research institute.

“It’s important to keep in mind that many of these laws that disenfranchise people with convictions and disproportionately disenfranchise Black and Latinx voters were intended from the outset to do just that,” said Morales-Doyle, deputy director for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program.

Many criminal disenfranchisement laws were put in place after the Civil War to intentionally deprive Black people of their right to vote and evade the mandate of the 15th Amendment, he said. And while some of the most overt practices to suppress the political power of communities of color were either eradicated or significantly blunted by the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, others  still remain. 

The effects of these state laws appear in the data. One in 16 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of any other group, according to the Sentencing Project. And although Black people make up about 13% of the U.S. population, 6.3% of the adult African American population is disenfranchised, compared with 1.7% percent of non-African American groups. In Wyoming, more than 36% of Black voters are disenfranchised because they are felons or ex-felons. In Mississippi, the state with the highest disenfranchisement rate overall, it’s about 16%.

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