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States consider restoring voting rights for felons

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By Roey Hadar

Gwen Ifill Fellow

Depending on which state you live in, the laws governing whether or not people convicted of a felony can vote can vary.

In most states, ex-felons can regain their rights depending on how much time has passed and what crime they committed, but in a handful of states, a felony conviction can lead to a person losing the right to vote for life.

Two states, Iowa and Kentucky, have laws stripping all felons of their right to vote for life unless they receive a pardon. Florida had a similar law until last year when voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4, a referendum to restore voting rights to most felons who have completed their sentence including parole or probation.

State legislators have introduced proposals to change the law in both Iowa and Kentucky. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has loosened the process to apply for a restoration of voting rights and been pushing for a constitutional amendment to allow ex-felons to vote. In Kentucky, a bipartisan group of legislators in the state’s House of Representatives have introduced a bill to restore felons’ voting rights automatically. Both proposals must pass through the state legislature and might need to be approved in a statewide referendum before becoming law.

Even in a state that approved felon voting in a referendum like Florida, however, there has been an ongoing debate about how restrictive the new law should be. Proposals in the state legislature may broaden the language that blocks people convicted of murder or sex crimes from voting to include accessories to crimes or lower-level sexual offenses or require voters to pay fees associated with their sentence before regaining the right to vote. Critics warn that these proposals, which cover hundreds of thousands of ex-felons, could disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged citizens.

“One of the things to worry about is that this definition of what constitutes the completion of the term and sentencing is going to disproportionately affect people who are going to be unable to completely pay their restitution and fines and fees involved around their sentencing,” said Michael McDonald, a political science professor at the University of Florida and creator of the United States Election Project.

What is the law on felon voting rights in your state? You can learn more here from this data, originally compiled by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan think tank that advocates for the removal of restrictions on voting rights.

  • Two states (Iowa and Kentucky) permanently disenfranchise all people with felony convictions unless they successfully petition the governor or president for clemency.
  • Ten states (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Tennessee, Wyoming) permanently disenfranchise at least some people with criminal convictions.
  • Eighteen states (Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin) restore voting rights upon completion of a sentence, including prison, parole and probation.
  • Four states (California, Colorado, Connecticut and Louisiana) automatically restore voting rights after release from prison and finishing of parole, while allowing people on probation to vote.
  • Fourteen states (Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah) and the District of Columbia restore voting rights automatically after release from prison.
  • Two states (Maine and Vermont) do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions.