In late January 2021, an act to restore felon voting rights failed to pass in the Senate. This act would have given voting rights back to millions of Americans who were formerly incarcerated, yet still cannot vote in elections.
You may be curious about why this act was significant and how individual states are responding to the failed bill.
Can Convicted Felons Vote in Elections?
When Americans are convicted of crimes and are incarcerated, they must give up their freedoms. One of these freedoms is the right to vote in federal, state, and municipal elections. When someone goes to jail or prison, they ‘pay their debt’ for their offense and, hopefully, undergo sufficient rehabilitation while incarcerated to enter back into society as an upstanding citizen.
In some states, once an individual has served their sentence, they have their voting rights restored. However, many states have anti-voter laws and continue to introduce anti-voter laws that restrict their right to vote in any election.
Some of these laws may ban all felons from voting while others only restrict some types of criminal offenses.
Supporters of the act argue the anti-voter laws are discriminatory against people of color and low-income and poor people. After all, disenfranchisement laws have their roots in Jim Crow laws, legally encouraging racial segregation, enforcing laws targeting and criminalizing Black people, and limiting Black rights.
There are several pieces of evidence that show the U.S. criminal justice system still disproportionately criminalizes people of color and low-income individuals, and many of the locations where anti-voter laws are enforced are predominantly Black or poor neighborhoods.
These laws unfairly restrict voting rights to this day.
Why Did the Restoration of Felon Voting Rights Fail?
While many Democrats have been pushing to pass felon voting rights restoration, many Republicans claim the anti-voting laws help protect Americans. They argue that you cannot be sure if formerly incarcerated individuals have been rehabilitated to the point where they would not commit another crime, even soon after release.
Moreover, it is largely agreed that certain crimes are particularly horrific in nature, committing deep transgressions against society and human dignity and life.
Certain lawmakers state that people who have committed violent crimes should never have certain rights restored, regardless of if they finish their sentences or not.
Additionally, Republicans argue that the Democrats have fabricated the gravity of a voting right crisis to garner and gather more votes for their favor.
How Are States Reacting to the Failed Act?
Despite the failed federal act, many states are still moving to restore voting rights. In fact, since the 2018 election alone, the number of states that automatically restore voting rights upon release has increased by 50%. Accordingly, there are currently 21 states that automatically do so.
Two states – Maine and New Hampshire – never strip the right to vote at all, even after conviction and during incarceration.
While activists and activist organizations continue to advocate for voting rights, they also must work to change policies and raise awareness within states that already grant voting rights to felons.
In fact, many people do not even know they have the right to vote after incarceration.
As such, it is important for corrections offices, probation, and parole officers to inform individuals of their rights upon release or probation periods.
Furthermore, activists work to make sure historically affected neighborhoods have access to an adequate number of polls in appropriate locations and voting options.