The right to vote in the US relies on two requirements, being a citizen and being older than 18.
And while it might be harder or easier to register to vote or cast a ballot depending on the state, there’s only one way someone can lose the right to vote entirely, and that’s through a felony conviction.
More than 1.2 million people were in prison in the US in 2020, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. More than 99% of these prisoners lost their right to vote while incarcerated. But what happens to someone’s voting rights after serving a prison sentence depends entirely on the state where they were convicted. In some states, their voting rights are restored after they are released from prison. In other places, they may permanently lose their rights.
In Maine, Vermont, and Washington, DC, incarcerated people can fill out their ballots from prison. The incarcerated population in these states was less than 1% of the total US prison population in 2020. Federal prisoners registered to vote in these states may vote while incarcerated, even if the federal prison is in a different state.
If a prisoner is held in a state-run prison outside of Maine or Vermont, they may still request an absentee ballot from prison if their last address before incarceration was in one of those two states. However, it may be more difficult to vote absentee from an out-of-state prison because prison officials are not required to help inmates vote.
In 20 states, those with felony convictions automatically regain the right to vote when they are released from prison. This means formerly incarcerated people can vote while serving probation or while out on parole. These states represented about 34% of the total prison population in 2020.
Five of these states changed their laws within the past two years to make the restoration of voting rights automatic upon release. Previously, those on parole could not vote in these five states.
In 17 states, people formerly incarcerated for felonies automatically regain the right to vote after the completion of their entire sentence, including probation or parole. About 32% of the total prison population in 2020 came from these 17 states.
The remaining 11 states have a variety of rules around when people with felony convictions regain the right to vote. These states represented about 21% of the prison population in 2020.
Six states automatically restore voting rights for certain crimes, such as nonviolent felonies. In some of these states, this process occurs after release from prison while others require completion of probation or parole.
In Nebraska, people formerly incarcerated for felonies must wait two years after completing their full sentence before automatically restoring their right to vote.
In three states, people with felony convictions get their voting rights restored after completion of probation, parole, and paying court fines and fees. These fines and fees can be confusing in states such as Florida, where the court can impose both the mandatory minimum fine for a crime committed but also add additional fees on top of that amount in the final sentence. For example, the court should have ordered more than $800 million in mandatory fines in 2020, according to the Florida Clerk and Comptroller annual report. However, the final amount owed to the court was more than $900 million because of the addition of discretionary fees.
For formerly incarcerated people with felonies who do not qualify for automatic restoration of rights, they must petition the court or state government for their rights to be restored. In Virginia and Tennessee, this petition process is the only way to restore rights.
Petitioning to restore voting rights can be easier or more difficult depending on the state. For example, in Virginia, only the governor has the power to restore voting rights. Under current Gov. Ralph Northam, those previously incarcerated for felonies may ask for their restoration of rights by filling out an online form. Northam restores rights daily.
However, in other states the restoration of rights process can take months after an individual fills out an application. In Tennessee, the person with a felony conviction cannot fill out the form themselves. They must ask a probation or parole officer or other court official to fill it out on their behalf.
A person’s voting rights can be permanently revoked for conviction of certain crimes. In some states, voting rights cannot be restored after a murder conviction, certain felony sex offenses, or election-related crimes.
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