Lack of Consistency from State to State
The U.S. Constitution gives states some of the responsibility to decide who can vote. Voting laws and policies about felony disenfranchisement vary widely from state to state.
This arrangement creates significant differences across states in terms of criminal convictions and voting rights. For example, in Florida, the possession of a small amount of marijuana can result in lifetime disenfranchisement, while in Maine, a rape or murder conviction does not affect voting rights at all.
People with felony records who are living in Maine and Vermont never lose their right to vote; in fact, it’s legal to vote from jail. In Florida, Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa, those with felonies are permanently disenfranchised, even after they have served their sentences.
See this Fact Sheet from The Sentencing Project to explore differences in felon disenfranchisement policy between states.
Most states fall in between. Minnesota, like many other states, restores the right to vote after all probation or parole requirements are satisfied. The number of people deprived voting rights due to a criminal conviction has grown over 400% since 1974. While 1.5% of Minnesotans are disenfranchised compared to 2.5% of the national population, the rate for African Americans is an astounding 7.3% (National - 7.7%). This racial disparity and overall statistics are shown in the Sentencing Project data below.
Because Minnesota relies heavily on the probation and parole system, most disenfranchised people are not in prison. There is currently an active movement to restore voting rights upon release from incarceration. This provision would restore voting rights to approximately 47,000 Minnesotans who are living outside of prison, but currently unable to vote.
Back and Forth Voting Rights
Some states have wavered between restoring rights and taking them away again, depending upon political climate and leadership. For example, a 2007 Florida clemency board acted to automatically restore voting rights for citizens with non-violent felony convictions. That decision was reversed in 2011 and people with felony records must now wait at least five years after completing their sentence before they can apply to have their vote restored.
In another similar instance, Iowa’s governor automatically restored voting rights for people who had completed their sentences in 2005, but a later governor repealed that voting right in 2011.
In many states, the rules about criminal convictions and voting rights are so confusing that election officials, corrections officers and those living with felony records don’t understand them. This means that eligible voters might stay away from the polls, or be turned away unnecessarily.