Historic efforts to reform felony voting laws

Thirteen States Examining Policies; Majority Seeking to Expand Voting Rights for Ex-Felons

Congressional Hearings Held to Permit Voting in Federal Elections. New Activity Spurred by 1998 Study on Disenfranchisement Impacts

Washington, D.C - A wave of activity to reform felony voting laws for the first time in a century is revealed in a new national report by The Sentencing Project entitled "Regaining the Vote". The study outlines legislative and legal activity in thirteen states and in Congress over the past year to address the issue of whether convicted felons and ex-felons should have the right to vote.

These state and federal efforts were spurred in large part by a 1998 study by Human Rights Watch and The Sentencing Project which found that 13 percent of African American males and nearly four million Americans are disenfranchised due to felony convictions. The new report, "Regaining the Vote: An Assessment of Activity Relating to Felon Disenfranchisement Laws," uncovers these state and federal activities:

State Legislative Activity

  • Enhanced Voting Rights Activity in Seven States
  • In Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Nevada, legislators have proposed automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and in Connecticut, for felons on probation or parole.
  • The Delaware legislature is considering restoration of voting rights for certain ex-felons after a five year post-release period.
  • In Virginia the state legislature appointed a subcommittee to examine issues of disenfranchisement of convicted felons.


  • In New Hampshire, inmates' voting rights have recently been restored after a state constitutional challenge.
  • In Washington a legal challenge has been brought to the state constitution on the grounds of violating the Voting Rights Act.
  • Federal Legislative Activity: The Subcommittee on the Constitution of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing in October 1999 to consider restoring federal voting rights to non-incarcerated felons.

Some States Restrict Right

  • In at least three states, efforts are underway to make voting rights more restrictive.
  • Voters in Utah chose to take away the right of inmates to vote and a similar measure is being considered in Massachusetts.
  • A 1999 vote in Louisiana restricts the crimes for which first offenders can receive automatic pardons.

Marc Mauer, Assistant Director of The Sentencing Project, stated that "The expansion of the criminal justice system over the past 25 years has created an ever-larger pool of ineligible voters. Current efforts to restore voting rights to offenders who have 'paid their debt' to society may help to bring the U.S. more in line with other democratic nations."

The report also documents the often erratic nature of the restoration process in several states. In Alabama, ex-offenders who apply for a pardon are required to provide DNA samples. In Virginia, ex-felons (both violent and nonviolent offenses) are required to wait five years before applying for a pardon, but persons convicted of a drug offense must wait seven years.

The 1998 report on disenfranchisement had found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of the total disenfranchised population of 3.9 million were not in prison. Of these, 1.4 million were ex-offenders who had completed their sentences, one million were offenders sentenced to probation, and nearly half a million were on parole.

The new report, "Regaining the Vote", is available from The Sentencing Project, 1516 P St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005, (202) 628-0871, and is available on-line at www.sentencingproject.org.