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Restoring the right to vote for all

It's time to end felony disenfranchisement and restore voting rights to those involved in the criminal justice system. 

"Restore the Vote" rally in Des Moines, Iowa Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

Voting is fundamental to our democracy. It is a right that should never be taken away. But in November, millions of Americans will once again be denied that right. Today an estimated 4.6 million Americans are barred from exercising their right to vote because they have felony convictions. Disproportionately, those who are disenfranchised are Black and living in poverty.    

Felony disenfranchisement is the longest-standing form of voter suppression in the U.S.—and it is past time for us to end it once and for all.   

Felony disenfranchisement is a policy of white supremacy. Coupled with more than 40 years of mass incarceration, felony disenfranchisement has worked to silence the African American’s political voice in ways that echo the “Black codes” of the 1860s and the Jim Crow laws of the 1950s. Today, one in 19 African American adults have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction (a rate that’s 3.5 times greater than that of all other Americans), according to The Sentencing Project.  

The injustice of felony disenfranchisement profoundly impacts the electoral process in all but two states. Outside of Maine and Vermont and the District of Columbia (where people can vote from their prison cells), the denial of this fundamental right has devastating effects. Felony disenfranchisement quashes political engagement and decimates political strength. It is an intentional, strategic effort to further suppress poor people and people of color. It’s driven by systemic racism, fuels continued poverty, and undermines equal and human rights.  

Not only does felony disenfranchisement contribute to the class and race bias in the electorate, it has generational impacts. As more and more African Americans and other people of color are disenfranchised, their children and grandchildren become less politically engaged and don’t vote—and their communities continue to lose out on needed resources.    

Until we restore the right to vote to all, our elections will be undemocratic—and the results illegitimate.    

In recent years, several states have made progressive reforms to address felony disenfranchisement. There reforms are the direct result of organizing and advocacy by people who have experienced incarceration, their families, advocates, and community organizations.  

  • In North Carolina, a court overturned the state’s voting ban for people serving felony probation, parole, and post-release supervision in June 2022. The decision re-enfranchised 56,000 North Carolinians—42% of whom are African American. 
  • In August 2020, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to tens of thousands of people who had completed felony sentences—ending Iowa’s distinction as the last remaining state to bar people convicted of felonies from ever voting again. 
  • In Virginia, governors—Democrat and Republican—have used their executive powers to restore the right to vote to tens of thousands of people with felony convictions, despite opposition from state legislators.

These are important steps in the right direction. But we must keep working to restore voting rights for all. We must ensure that no one is ever disenfranchised, regardless of their involvement with the criminal legal system.

We must also hold government accountable for implementing these reforms as intended. In Florida, for example, voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2018 to restore voting rights to over a million people with felony convictions who had been subject to lifetime disenfranchisement. But in 2019, Florida’s governor signed into law the equivalent of a poll tax to disenfranchise them again. And today, Florida continues its efforts to keep people with felony convictions from the polls. 

A participant at AFSC's Liberation Academy. Photo: Echoes of Incarceration 

Here in New York City, more than a dozen young people have joined efforts to end felony disenfranchisement by taking part in AFSC’s Liberation Summer Advocacy Academy. In partnership with Let NY Vote and Justice Aid, these young leaders are learning how to advocate against felony disenfranchisement and developing a social media campaign to register formerly incarcerated people to vote. Last May, they participated in a voter registration event that registered over 300 people previously disenfranchised. 

As millions of people across this country continue their struggle to be recognized, I’m reminded of the words of my friend Larry White, who is formerly incarcerated and now works with AFSC’s Healing Justice Program. At the age of 77, Larry voted for the first time—after more than 40 years of being disenfranchised. He told me, “I now matter, my opinion counts.”   

Let’s end this injustice now.  

Here’s what you can do today:  

1. Tell your governor: Restore voting rights to all!

Take action and contact your governor: The right to vote should never be taken away! Spread the word by sharing our action on social media.  

2. Ask political candidates if they support ending felony disenfranchisement. 

During election season, you have a unique opportunity to get candidates on the record about issues that are important to you—and to influence their opinions. You can do this by seeking out a candidate for any public office; asking them where they stand on issues you care about, including ending felony disenfranchisement; and documenting their responses to share with the public.   

Here’s a sample script you can use: 

“Here in [your state], many people are barred from exercising their right to vote because of involvement in the criminal legal system. I believe the right to vote should never be taken away. Will you protect our right to vote by working to end felony disenfranchisement?” 

About the Author

Lewis Webb is the Healing Justice program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee in New York. After graduating from law school, Lewis has dedicated his entire professional career to criminal justice issues. At AFSC, Lewis focuses on decreasing New York’s prison population by addressing paths to incarceration and increas