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Felon Disenfranchisement in the U.S.

Updated on January 3, 2008

How the facts differ between states

  • Number of states that deny the vote, for life, to all people with felony convictions even if they have completed their sentences: 3
  • Number of states that deny the vote to some or all of their citizens who have completed their sentences: 9
  • Number of states that disenfranchise prisoners convicted of a felony: 48
  • Number of states that disenfranchise felony probationers: 31
  • Number of states that disenfranchise people on parole: 36


American Blackout: Discussing patterns of voter disenfranchisement

A Canadian perspective

As a Canadian citizens, we don't have to worry too much about this problem in our society, but, as our neighbours to the south gear up for another election, I can't help but wonder abouit something that I find one of the most puzzling aspects of American society. Many Americans might be surprised to learn that an overwhelming two percent of their fellow citizens are ineligible to vote.

In today's United States, as many as 4.7 million citizens have had their voting rights revoked due to conviction of a felony crime. These crimes can range from murder to cheque forging. Some criminals may have served little or no jail time. Felon disenfranchisement is an outdated law older than the Republic itself.

The idea that criminals should sacrifice their political rights dates back to early Rome. The British also adopted these ideas during the 17th and 18th centuries and American colonists brought them to the Americas. When the American Republic was founded only a small fraction of the public had any voting rights. This right depended on how valuable a member of society you were, which resulted in only white males over the age of 21 being allowed to cast their vote. Women, people of colour, and the poor were universally excluded.

It is ultimately a ploy on the part of the U.S. government to exclude undesirable members of society from fully executing their right to have a say in the future of their country. There are arguments that the logic of these laws is elusive. It is understandable to keep convicted child molesters away from children, or to forbid an embezzler from working at a bank, however many people feel that a basic human right such as voting is something that is needed to return to democratic society.

Public opinion points strongly in favour of restoring ex-felons voting rights, with 80% of the American public supporting restoration of rights to convicts who have completed their sentences, and 64% and 62% respectively supporting the rights of probationers and parolees. In contrast to these polls, currently 48 states bar prison inmates from voting, with 32 and 28 states respectively prohibiting parolees and probationers.

Of the 4.7 million convicts who have had their rights revokes, only 27% are currently incarcerated. Between Florida and Texas alone, 1, 000, 000 US citizens are unable to cast their vote. Thirteen percent of the African-American population, and an increasing number of Latino men are excluding from voting, substantially decreasing the power of the Black and Latino vote.

U.S. representative John Conyers is quoted as saying "If we want former felons to become good citizens, we must give them rights as well as responsibilities, and there is no greater responsibility than voting". Common sense, one would assume. Then why are issues of this nature moving backwards?

Many people hold the misconception that ex felons don't care about politics. This is simply not true. Many former criminals have children and families they simply want the best that life has to offer them, just like any member of society.

Why should someone pay for a mistake for the rest of his or her life? In my mind, if the law considers these people rehabilitated enough to rejoin society, then they are just as affected by the actions of the government as anyone else and deserve to become a part of government decision-making.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hey Lindsay,

      You say "Thirteen percent of the African-American population", but your source says its "Thirteen percent of the total population of BLACK ADULT MEN". This is a huge error, obviously. Please fix this.

    • profile image

      Tony Beamer 

      9 years ago

      Being a felon convicted 13 years ago I wonder why i'm still paying taxes ,working hard trying to better myself going to nite school but I wonder am I ever going to be able to have my chance to live a better life sinc I made one mistake

    • profile image

      Keith Adams 

      9 years ago

      Im in the same boat as you Denny. Just lost a job offering in the high 40's ( which is a lot of money to me! ) because of a stupid drug crime from 1981 at an AC/DC concert. Thats almost 30 years ago! I didn't hurt anyone...I was simply engaging in some recreational drug use which I totally abhor now as an adult. So, that really cuts into my employability.BUT, I have not let it hinder me too much.....what's ONE tablet of LSD? I mean's a Class A drug....but ONE tablet?


    • profile image

      Denny Hayes 

      9 years ago

      Actually this article and the comments here fall drastically short of the real situation. Before I start, yes I am a convicted felon. The charge was copyright violation, not even close to a violent crime. At the time of my conviction, 20 years ago, copyright violation was a misdemeanor, not a felony, that carried only a max of a possible 6 months in jail as worst case. But the laws created back in the early 80s, called racketeering laws, are so vague that they can be applied to anyone. These were pushed through under a disguise that they were to be used against gangster crime and real racketeering such as drug crimes. One of those laws is called Money Laundering. The way that law is worded is if a person commits a crime that makes money and spends even 10 cents of that money to continue the business, he can be sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. They also have a law called Wire Fraud. Under that law if you have any illegal business and make or receive phones call. faxes, etc. you can get 5 years in prison for each phone call. Similarly there is a law call Mail Fraud which is worded the same way, where you can get 5 years for each mailing you send or receive. There is another law that states you must fill out a form every time you do any cash transaction that exceeds ten thousand dollars. If you do anything to circumvent that law, such as multiple lower dollar amount transactions, there is a law that covers that too. It is called Structuring, and you can get up to 20 years in prison for that too. The interesting thing about that law is that the government gets to decide your intent, and there have been no cases where people convicted of violating that law have won challenging it in court.. In my case, they said that I bout a stereo, a new TV and a list of other things over a two year period that added up to over ten thousand dollars. I didn't even know the first law existed, so I would not have purchased these in an attempt to avoid anything. The list went on, and I was told that I was facing a possible 900 years in prison for violating a copyright of Apple Computer. I might add that Apple had no involvement in the case at all, and the whole thing was handled by the FBI.

      My two attorneys advised me to pled guilty and that I would get only 5 years in prison. So I agreed but was actually given 10 years, because at sentencing the prosecutor told so many lives to make me sound like Al Capone. At that time the prisons were full, so they told me to go back home and that I would be notified where there was an opening in one of the federal prisons. Approx 6 months later I received a phone call from the sheriff that informed me there was an opening in the Sandstone, MN, federal prison. So I purchased a plane ticket and walked into the prison to start my sentence.

      While I was there I decided to learn law, because I thought that the plea agreement meant that they could only give me 5 years. So I filed my own brief to the court, then the prosecutor lied and I responded. I also filed a motion to the appeals court which was denied. Then I discovered none of these laws that I had plead guilty to, could even be applied to a crime unless the crime was a felony. In the actual written law, the next paragraph, in each case, said that the base crime had to be a felony, which is a charge that carries a sentence of over one year. The initial change in my case was copyright violation that had a max maximum sentence of only 6 months in jail. The bottom line is that they had convinced me to pled equity to charges that I could not even be charged with, and neither of my original attorneys even knew. Everyone was too lazy to actually read the law. It is worthy to note here that a few months later the US government made copyright violation a felony with a sentence of over one year. Actually, in the US, there are so many loosely worded laws that they can pick up anyone off the street and give them life in prison.

      Finally after 2 years in prison away from my family, I was called back to court. But before I actually appeared in court they forced me to have a court appointed attorney, whose sole purpose was to convince me to sign over the money that the government had taken from me. After 6 months of trying, he gave up and the attorney asked the court to be removed from the case. They then gave me another female attorney who also attempted to get me to release the money to the government. They felt that if the charges were dropped they would have to give back the money. In the end she filed her brief, and I filled an addendum. But in court, instead of dropping the charges, they released me for time served, which means that I am still a convicted felon who can't vote. I might add that I have since learned that Apple Computer stole the code that I was using from Xerox, and had no copyright on it at all. That means that in the end I committed no crime at all, but still can't vote or own a firearm

      My feeling is that big business, who put the presidents in office, and the conservatives, do not want anyone, black or white who they feel do not have their views to vote. And to prevent any violent uprising they remove the ability for anyone not having their views to own firearms.

      There is an interesting TV show called American Greed. If you watch that show closely, they use this same set of laws to give large sentences to people they feel need to be removed. Most of these convicted are pretty obviously scum bags, but about one third off them were sent to jail for doing some of the same things that the federal government does every day. One crime they seem to focus on a lot is called a ponzi scheme. There are many divisions of even the federal government's activities that fall under the definition of a ponzi scheme.

      The bottom line is that the legal system in the US is a mess, because of vague misapplied laws, using coerced testimony from other people involved to get them a lower sentence, and laws that allow the federal criminal divisions to keep any money they confiscate from the convicted. And the rest of the US government is not any better. I could tell you stories of so many totally illegal and immoral things that the government did in my case, but it would take a book. But there would be no purpose at all. Either no one would believe them or if many did start to believe, I would probably disappear or be charged with something else to remove me. There is nothing for me or society to gain, so why I am even typing this is a question?

    • profile image

      Felon Disenfranchisement 

      9 years ago

      Before you wonder, NO, I am not a felon. Now, call me crazy (& I'm sure you will) but I have always been of the opinion that "If the law doesn't include me, then it shouldn't apply to me". If a person is banned from voting for a specific law, the government shouldn't be allowed to hold them accountable or responsible if they break said law. Realistically, felon disenfranchisement, is nothing short of a modern day form of partial slavery. I feel it is also a "double penalty". If you are convicted of a felony, you are "sentenced". X amount of time in prison, & or X $ in fines. That sentence says nothing about "voting". That is tacked on AFTER release from prison, & after the debt to society has been paid in full. To add sentence/penalty AFTER time served is wrong, & morally, it constitutes an injustice that is probably worse than the crimes of most felons. I feel it is unconstitutional, even though the so called "Supreme Court", in all their wisdom, (or lack of it) splendor & brilliance, has ruled otherwise.

      Most likely, this law will stay in place, as is, for eternity. That is because the people it affects, have no legal recourse or vote, to change it. Here is an idea. Imagine if every felon in America, packed up an moved to the state of Wyoming, population 500,000. That would mean about 90% of the (new) population of that state, would have no voting rights what-so-ever!? They wouldn't even be allowed change the law, because they are banned from voting to do so!

      1 last thought, what if a bunch of felons, moved, "somewhere", & started/chartered a new town or city. (well, technically they couldn't, since I'm pretty sure you have to "vote" in order to do that/establish a new town). But just say they did. Well, now exactly how would this new town vote for their mayor, city council, school board, etc??? Theoretically, 1 non-felon could move to the town, & basically "take over", lol. Right? Just "vote" himself as mayor. What's the saying, "in the land of the blind, the 1 eyed man is king"?

      "In the town of the felons, the man with a vote is mayor". LOL

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      The US justice system is broken as well as the prison system. US lawyers are generally persons who could not get a job after college so they went to law school. After law school, many become DA's and MUST win all their cases in any way possible - even by illegal means! - so that they can pay off their law school loan and win their cases - whether guilty or not - to keep their job because 95% of arrests result in convictions. For the prisons, it has become a major industry - that law enforcement must keep filled - and consists of 25% of the world's population of prisoners.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Another Canadian sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Yea, NON-VIOLENT Felons should get their right to vote back and MAYBE be able to own a firearm after 5-10 years but violent felons should NEVER vote again and should NEVER be able to own a firearm. I'm sick and tired of liberal babies crying about the "rights of people the CHOSE to be a menace to society. Liberals love crying about Rights when it comes to criminals but won't even grant a defenseless baby the right to life.

    • helpdeskian profile image


      12 years ago from Pennsylvania

      this is definitely an issue in American society! We treat these prisoners, the majority of which are in jail for non violent crimes, horribly. While they are incarcerated they are the equivalent of modern day slaves. When they get out they are stigmatized and left with so few options that there previous ways of doing things are really easy to revert back too. Prisons are big business!

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      12 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Z apparently didn't click on the links. Great Hub! The U.S. could learn a lot from Canada and vice versa.

    • profile image

      12 years ago

      Good article but not useful without references. Would love to see hyperlinks or notes telling us where you got your numbes/stats.

    • profile image

      John G 

      12 years ago

      I am one of those folks that have been convicted of a felony and now am a 2nd class citizen. I can not vote - I can not own a firearm.

      How right is this? It's not! It clearly discrimnates against those of us that have paid for our mistakes. Unfortunately I must pay for the rest of my life for a mistake 16 years ago.

      Why for heavens sake don't these blind congressmen make a law that restores a felons rights fully afte a period of time SAY 10 years without any criminal activity?

      I guess I must continue to live without certain rights.

      You know I'd love to go to another country, but I can't even get a passport.

      Makes one wonder how the actors that get convicted do it? GUESS the are considered better than the rest of us................

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 

      12 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Good to get a Canadian perspective. I agree that once felons serve their time their full citizenship rights should be restored. Possible exception: some restrictions on pedophiles may be necessary but they should be allowed to vote. Much reform is needed in our penal system. Conyers is one of Michigan's best representatives in Congress.


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