Felony Disenfranchisement Should Concern All Americans

Red background of someone standing behind bars and some of the background ripped away with a blue-toned ballot underneath.

Felony disenfranchisement is an issue that rarely makes headlines, but it should concern all Americans who care about democracy and the future of our republic. As of 2022, more than 4.6 million Americans with a felony conviction were disenfranchised — disproportionately Black and Latinx citizens.

The good news is that, since 1997, 26 states and Washington, D.C. have expanded voting rights to people living with felony convictions, resulting in two million Americans regaining the right to vote. But there is still a long way to go to fully restore the right to vote to all Americans with a felony conviction on their record — and there are forces at work in the form of litigation, legislation and criminalization attempting to roll back the advances that have been made already.

In North Carolina, where our friends at Forward Justice have been working hard to restore voting rights, a victory was won in 2022 when the state Supreme Court restored voting rights to 56,000 North Carolinians with records. However, the same court flipped to a majority of Republican justices in the 2022 midterms, and a challenge to that ruling led to the newly GOP-led court to shockingly overturn its own decision less than a year later, disenfranchising tens of thousands once again. 

In 2018, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment to auto­mat­ic­ally restore voting rights to most Floridians with past convictions who had completed the terms of their sentence. However, in June 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law a bill prohib­it­ing return­ing citizens from voting unless they pay off certain legal finan­cial oblig­a­tions imposed by a court pursu­ant to a felony convic­tion — essentially implementing a new form of “poll tax” that once again prohibited many from being able to access the ballot.

In Kentucky, Savvy Shabazz, a 2023 graduate of JustLeadershipUSA’s Leading with Conviction™ (LwC) leadership training program, has been fighting for expanding voting rights restoration after having his own rights restored last year — and being able to vote again for the first time in 20 years. He has personally helped pay the bail for incarcerated people — sometimes as little as $12.50 — in order to help them get to vote. As Savvy says, “You’re telling me this person can’t exercise their right to vote because they don’t have any money?” He adds, “It is important for all of us to fight against voter disenfranchisement, because voting is not a privilege, it is a right that we should all have and exercise.”

In Virginia, the NAACP has been fighting Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration for changing from the partly automatic restoration system used by his predecessors to one they say “lacks clear standards for restoring voting rights” to people with felony convictions who have served their sentences.

Galen Baughman (LwC 2015) had his voting rights restored in 2021 and participated in several elections in Virginia before discovering — when he went to vote in the primaries this June — that he had been removed from the state voter rolls. Baughman was initially afraid to cast a provisional ballot, because he recalled how Florida authorities had arrested 20 people convicted of felonies who’d believed they were eligible to vote and attempted to in the 2020 election. Ultimately, Baughman did vote by provisional ballot and in July went to court to have his voting rights successfully reinstated.

We firmly believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and that is true also of this fight for voting rights restoration.

But the millions of Americans living with felony convictions should not be confused about their eligibility or in fear of participating in the electoral process or what might happen to them. That fear and hesitation is exactly what the adversaries of voting rights want and are counting on to suppress the power of so many of us. 

Many JustLeadershipUSA leaders are organizing around the country to address this concern. Dawn Harrington (LwC 2017) and Keeda Haynes (LwC 2022) with Free Hearts have been particularly outspoken in Tennessee, which denies over 471,000 individuals, making that state No. 1 in felony disenfranchisement of Black and Latinx voters and No. 2 for felony disenfranchisement in the country. (Mississippi is currently No. 1.) 

In July, Tennessee’s Elections Division under Secretary of State Tre Hargett (R) issued a new procedure that, Harrington argues, “willfully and unilaterally misinterpreted a recent state Supreme Court case that dealt with out-of-state felony convictions.” Hargett’s new guidance essentially shuts down the state’s voting rights restoration process by forcing individuals who have lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction to go through both Tennessee’s administrative voting rights restoration process (called a Certificate of Restoration, or COR) and through a gubernatorial pardon or court petition.

One positive and potential model for other states to adopt is one that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) signed into law in November and that will go into effect in June 2025 — automatic voter registration for people when they are released from prison. Rather than having to navigate an application process to have their voting rights restored, formerly incarcerated Michiganders will have the option to decline voter registration when released instead.

Last week, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Sen. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) introduced the Inclusive Democracy Act in Congress, which would end felony disenfranchisement in federal elections and guarantee incarcerated U.S. citizens the right to vote. Its chances of passing in the current congressional climate seems doubtful, however, unless there is an overwhelming groundswell of support.

The fight to defend and expand voting rights is one of the reasons why we have worked with other justice-impacted leaders from across the country to launch the JustUS Coordinating Council (JCC) to amplify our voices at the state and federal levels and to say enough is enough. The JCC seeks to position our experience with the criminal legal system as the expertise needed to protect the rights and freedoms currently under constant threat and attack. Through building stakeholder engagement with policymakers and a table of directly impacted leaders, we know our collective impact can slow and reverse these troubling trends. 

We firmly believe that those closest to the problem are closest to the solution, and that is true also of this fight for voting rights restoration. Directly impacted people are leading the way in many places, but it will take all of us standing together to hold back the tide pushing back against voting rights and to push forward until everyone can vote regardless of their felony conviction history.

DeAnna Hoskins is president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), the nation’s largest tax-exempt criminal justice reform organization that is both founded by and led by formerly incarcerated people. She is also the founder of the JustUS Coordinating Council.