The Growing Movement To Grant All Prisoners the Right To Vote: Formerly incarcerated activists say that taking away voting rights because of felony convictions is racist and undemocratic, period.

“Going to prison doesn’t mean you forfeit your right to care about what happens to your family, your child, your community or even your country.”

Emmett Sanders was incarcerated at age 18 and spent 22 and a half years in prison. When he spoke with In These Times in June, he had only been home for 18 months. After getting the lay of the land—learning things like how to write a résumé and use a cell phone, and what the hell a Google was—he threw himself headlong into the work that now consumes so much of his daily life: advocating for voting rights for those behind bars. “I can’t forget being [in prison] and I can’t forget the people who are still there, you know?” he says. “They fight every day of their lives and the very least I can do is take the opportunity to fight with them.”

One of the keystones of that work is “Full Human Beings,” a report Sanders authored in May for the People’s Policy Project, a progressive think tank. In it, he argues that a society that restricts the right to vote is committing an assault on a basic moral principle—that every citizen should have a say in the decisions that shape their lives. Mend that error, Sanders insists, and “the United States might actually join the ranks of countries that view incarcerated people as full human beings.”

At last count, an estimated 6.1 million Americans (1.4 million of whom are still incarcerated) remain barred from voting due to a felony conviction.

Questions about the wisdom and legitimacy of felony disenfranchisement laws have been bursting into popular debate for years. It wasn’t long after the 2000 presidential election—decided by 500 votes in Florida—that it dawned on researchers that opening the polls to Florida’s hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions would have swung the election to Al Gore.

The issue gets to the heart of a conflict as old as the country itself—one over who gets to shape the decisions that affect us all. Sanders is part of a rising chorus of grassroots activists, advocates and lawmakers working to re-enfranchise those with felony convictions. Their argument is twofold: First, that felony disenfranchisement is undemocratic in the plainest sense, since voting is vital to democracy. Second, that it is racist. Black people, who make up just 13 percent of the population, comprise 38 percent of Americans barred from voting due to a past conviction. Put another way, one in 13 black Americans has been stripped of their right to vote, four times the rate of other Americans, according to the research group the Sentencing Project.

While some states have had felony disenfranchisement laws on the books since the country’s earliest days, most of these codes were narrow, applying to only a few crimes. The laws expanded in the aftermath of the Civil War, as part of an elaborate, multifront campaign by lawmakers across the South to preserve white rule over black life. In 1865 and 1866, former slave states adopted a series of Black Codes—laws that made certain aspects of black life criminal offenses. Between 1865 and 1880, at least 13 states also passed broad felony disenfranchisement laws. Stroll along the wrong patch of land, speak a whisper too loud in the presence of white women, fail to prove your employment to white authorities—and be thrown in jail and barred from casting a ballot in one fell swoop.

On occasion, the authors and interpreters of these laws would come right out and say what they were up to. The Mississippi Supreme Court (in a ruling upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898) found that despite being “restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race,” the state could still “discriminate against its characteristics, and the offenses to which its criminal members are prone.” The 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention met to discuss “White Supremacy by Law,” including deliberate “manipulation of the ballot” to oppose “the menace of negro domination.” One new code barred those “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude” from voting. In 2016, that law blocked 1 in 6 black adults in Alabama from voting (compared to 1 in 13 Alabamians overall), according to the Sentencing Project.

Felony disenfranchisement laws eventually made it up North, though the direct bow to white supremacy was often left behind. All the same, the racial impact lives on.

Today, a number of efforts are underway to restore those rights. Since 2016, at least five states—Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, New York and Virginia—have enacted policies that expand voting rights for people convicted of felonies who are on probation or parole. Louisiana, for example, recently  restored ballot access to those who have been out of prison for at least five years. In Alabama, after enormous pressure from outside advocacy groups and stinging exposés from local journalists revealing the maze-like nature of the state’s voting laws, Gov. Kay Ivey signed the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act in 2017, clarifying that felonies such as marijuana possession do not disqualify people from voting. With tens of thousands of Alabamians now eligible to have their rights restored, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Campaign Legal Center are mobilizing local leaders to help affected voters register.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 14 states introduced felony re-enfranchisement bills in the most recent legislative session, but only Louisiana’s made it into law. In Florida, formerly incarcerated people have launched an effort to return voting rights to those who have served their full sentence. Amendment 4 will appear on the November ballot, giving Florida’s voters a chance to weigh in on whether they approve of the state’s first-in-the-nation rate of disenfranchisement.

Most advocacy efforts have focused on people who have already exited prison, but Sanders and the People’s Policy Project point out that the same moral logic applies to those inside. People’s Policy Project President Matt Bruenig argues that, instead of “a somewhat arbitrary battle over when exactly ex-offenders should have their voting rights restored,” Democrats should be advancing the principled position that “those voting rights should never go away in the first place.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea. South Africa, much of Europe and the European Court recognize incarcerated people’s right to vote. In the United States, however, only Maine and Vermont do—two of the three whitest states.

It isn’t hard to imagine this as the next frontier in voting rights. Massachusetts’ Emancipation Initiative is working hand in hand with current and formerly incarcerated people to end the state’s prohibition on voting behind bars. In the meantime, they’re taking steps to subvert it. Through their Ballot Over Bars program, for instance, someone who’s eligible to vote on the outside is matched with someone who’s been disenfranchised on the inside and commits to voting according to their choices, giving the incarcerated person a proxy voice. The program is now in its second year, and nearly 100 outside volunteers have signed up, co-founder Elly Kalfus says.

“If people in prison have the right to vote, then politicians will actually pay attention to what’s going on in prisons,” Sanders says. Stripping prisons of funding for job training and education programs is an easy way for elected officials to balance budgets. Sanders also stresses that “laws that have nothing to do with prison directly affect incarcerated people as well. Going to prison doesn’t mean you forfeit your right to care about what happens to your family, your child, your community or even your country.”

Sanders’ report, and recent efforts to make voting truly universal for adults, come during the runup to the 2018 midterms. Democrats are especially hopeful that surging voter enthusiasm will help them win a congressional majority. With Republicans trying their damnedest to shrink the pool of eligible voters, advocates have insisted that Democrats start looking for avenues to expand it in the states where they have the power to do so.

Sanders, however, goes beyond arguing that the disproportionately poor and black people sitting in our jails and prisons are a potential reservoir of votes for one party or the other. Rather, he argues those we’ve locked away should be allowed to vote as a step toward something much deeper: recognizing them as full human beings.

It’s clear that the sense of powerlessness that blooms in prison is what drives Sanders’ commitment to amplifying the voices of the incarcerated. “I’ve seen people not be acknowledged as people. Every day, every moment you’re there, there’s like this huge concrete maw just trying to devour you, trying to just eat your humanity, eat your dignity, and you have to fight it every single day,” he says. “Any human being should be moved to recognize the right of other human beings to have their voices heard.”

Eli Day is a writer and relentless Detroiter, where he writes about politics and policy. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Metric, Huffington Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others. 

(Left to right) Gerald Dent, James Featherstone and Niles Ringgold celebrate Maryland’s first day of voter registration for people on probation or parole on March 10, 2016, in Baltimore. The three spent a combined 116 years in prison. The Democratic legislature re-enfranchised 40,000 people with felony convictions by overriding Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Many countries fully recognize the right of incarcerated citizens to vote. Today, 26 European nations at least partially protect their incarcerated citizens’ right to vote, while 18 countries grant prisoners the vote regardless of the offense. In Germany, Norway, and Portugal, only crimes that specifically target the “integrity of the state” or “constitutionally protected democratic order” result in disenfranchisement. The European Court of Human Rights has forcefully defended the voter franchise, going so far as to condemn in 2005 Britain’s blanket ban on voting rights for prisoners, calling it a violation of human rights. In December of last year, after 12 years of resistance to the ECHR’s decision, the UK partially relented by allowing prisoners on temporary release and at home under curfew to cast their ballots.

Even our Canadian neighbors acknowledge the right of people in prison to have their voices heard at election time. In South Africa, meanwhile, prisoners have participated in the democratic process since 1999, when their Constitutional Court declared that “The universality of the franchise is important not only for nationhood and democracy. The vote of each and every citizen is a badge of dignity and of personhood.”

Despite this growing international consensus, however, the United States—the self-proclaimed lighthouse of democracy—significantly abridges the voter franchise. Only in Maine and Vermont can prisoners participate in elections; for the vast majority of the 1.5 million people in federal and state prisons, democracy remains a spectator sport. All told, less than 4,000 prisoners have the right to vote. It is time for this to change.


At the state level, some efforts to enfranchise people with criminal backgrounds have already begun:

In 2016, Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed an executive orderrestoring voting rights to more than 200,000 people with felony convictions in Virginia, a state which has permanent felony disenfranchisement laws. Virginia’s Supreme Court invalidated this order, but the former governor countered this move by restoring rights to more than 172,000 people individually.

In California, more than 50,000 people serving felony sentences had their voting rights restored via Assembly Bill 2466. Though this did not extend the franchise to those incarcerated in state and federal prisons in California, it did recognize the right of incarcerated citizens in the state’s jails.

Earlier this year in Florida, US District Court Judge Mark Walker declared the continued denial of the right to vote ”nonsensical” and a constitutional violation. Florida is one of only four states to not automatically restore voting rights after full completion of a sentence (including probation/parole).

Though denied the vote themselves, prisoners in Pennsylvania were able to form a political action campaign in which they successfully organized their friends, families, and home communities to elect Larry Krasner, a progressive District Attorney, in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the Democracy Restoration Act, a federal bill which would provide the franchise to all upon release from prison, has been rejected in Congress a number of times since 2008.

These are all important steps in the right direction—but the fact remains that the United States, home of nearly 25% of the world’s prison population, denies to them a right that is foundational to democracy. As formerly incarcerated author, educator, and Detroit community activist Yusef Shakurcommented, “In a country that prides itself on being democratic…the democratic thing to do would be to allow millions of incarcerated Americans to participate in the democratic process.”


Prisoner disenfranchisement in the US is as old as the American prison. In 1792, Kentucky’s State Constitution became the first to disenfranchise people convicted of a crime, declaring that “Laws shall be made to exclude from office and from suffrage those who shall thereafter be convicted of bribery, perjury, forgery, or other high crimes or misdemeanors.” A flurry of other states would follow. As prisons emerged in the US during the 1820s, a system was already in place to deny representation to those who found themselves within those walls.

John B Knox
President of the Alabama Constitutional Convention, John B. Knox, who stated in his inaugural address that the intention of the convention was “to establish white supremacy in this State.” Source: Encyclopedia of Alabama

Formal racial disenfranchisement soon followed. Legal Fellow Scott Novakowski of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice points out that a number of Northern states used their constitutions to block black participation in civic engagement. In 1844, almost twenty years before the Civil War began, New Jersey excluded free blacks from the electoral realmin its state constitution.

The Reconstruction Era brought a temporary respite when the Fifteenth Amendment endowed the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Soon, however, policies that restricted the franchise based on felony conviction emerged, giving birth to laws designed to criminalize blackness and uphold white supremacy. In 1898’sWilliams vs. The State of Mississippi, the Mississippi Supreme Court Court found it “within the field of permissible action under the limitations imposed by the federal constitution” that “Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race” the state could still “discriminate against its characteristics, and the offenses to which its criminal members are prone.” Three years later the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, in addressing “White Supremacy By Law,” brought forward perhaps the most explicit mention of the racialization of felony disenfranchisement: “The justification for whatever manipulation of the ballot that has occurred in this State has been the menace of negro domination.” This strategy would continue through the Jim Crow era, and laid the foundation for the current situation in the era of mass incarceration. A 500% increase in the prison population over the past 40 years, has also meant a 500% increase in incarcerated voter disenfranchisement over the same period of time.


One of the most vocal opponents of a right to vote for the incarcerated is Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity. In an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Mr. Clegg maintained that “if you won’t follow the law yourself, then you can’t make the law for everyone else, which is what you do—directly or indirectly—when you vote.”

This position encounters a wide range of objections.

Marc Mauer
Source: University of Pittsburgh Center on Race and Social Problems

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project and a leading expert on sentencing policy, race, and the criminal justice system, says that Clegg’s argument is an attempt to establish a “character test” for voting. Further, Mauer argues, “It also rests on the dubious assumption that people who have been convicted of stealing a car, for example, cannot be trusted to participate in decision-making about which of two candidates has a more reasonable position on the war in Afghanistan, publicly-funded abortions, or health insurance policy.”

Rachel Corey
Source: Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy

Rachel Corey, of the Massachusetts-based Emancipation Initiative, echoed Mauer’s views in a telephone interview. Incarcerated people involved with the Emancipation Initiative don’t fit into Clegg’s narrative, she suggested—they are engaged citizens. In 2016, for example, many voiced concern about local ballot initiatives on charter schools: “They have children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews [that go to these schools],” Corey said. “Education is important to a lot of [people in prison].” This sort of concern also demonstrated how the right to vote while incarcerated helps to maintain a connection between the incarcerated person and their family and community.

Ronald Pierce
Source: Medium / Alex Harrison

Ronald Pierce, an intern with the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice who spent over 30 years in New Jersey state prisons, maintained in a phone interview that “the right to vote is a fundamental right, and a right to be connected to society. Not only a right to participate, but an obligation to the society.” When people in prison are prevented from fulfilling that obligation, he said, they become disconnected from the rest of society—and without that connection, there is no feeling of responsibility. “If you can’t fulfill your obligation to that community, why should that community look at you as an asset? You aren’t an asset to that community; you are a debit to that community.”

Ronald Simpson-Bey
Source: AFSC

Ronald Simpson-Bey, the Director of Outreach and Alumni Engagement for Just Leadership USA—a national organization dedicated to empowerment of “people most affected by incarceration”—reiterates Pierce’s perspective: “Allowing incarcerated people the right to vote will strengthen their social and community ties. It encourages them to become assets to their communities instead of liabilities because it encourages legally responsible involvement and behavior in a civil society.”

The effect of incarcerated voter disenfranchisement can be particularly devastating to urban communities of color. “Because prisons are disproportionately built in rural areas but most incarcerated people call urban areas home, counting prisoners in the wrong place results in a systematic transfer of population and political clout from urban to ruralareas,” the Prison Policy Initiative explains. This political dynamic effectively commodifies incarcerated people as batteries used to fuel and amplify the votes of people in mostly rural, predominantly white communities—while muting representation in urban communities of color.

The collective concerns of urban communities of color then go unaddressed. “While not all members of a given racial or ethnic group vote as a uniform bloc, there are nonetheless strong patterns of party affiliation or issue identification in such communities,” Marc Mauer points out. “Therefore, to the extent that felony disenfranchisement reduces the scale of the black electorate in particular, it also reduces the political impact of the larger black community, including those who have never been convicted of a felony themselves.”

Prison-based gerrymandering, made possible because of incarcerated voter disenfranchisement, silences and effectively disenfranchises communities of color. As Ronald Pierce put it, “Felony disenfranchisement not only strips the voice of the felon, but it strips the collective voice of the community and limits the community’s efficacy.”

Dr. Henry Brady
Dr. Henry Brady of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. Source: The Goldman School

In addition to its effects on community representation, the disenfranchisement of incarcerated citizens also has generational consequences. Studies suggest that voting is as much a learned behavior as it is a habit. Children whose parents engage in civic activity and discuss politics and voting are more likely to find value in taking part in the democratic process themselves, Dr. Henry Brady of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley observed. “If you’ve had the behavior modeled in your home by your parents consistently voting, by political discussion, sometimes by participation, you start a habit formation, and then when you become a little older you’ll feel it’s your duty and responsibility to register and vote,” Brady says.

When parents are not able to vote, however, children often have no model for civic engagement. This suggests that when parents in prison are disenfranchised, their children are effectively disenfranchised as well. It remains to be seen what sort of ripple effect millions of children with politically silenced incarcerated parents will have on our country’s future. “We’re only now beginning to have a generation of young people who have grown up under mass incarceration,” Mauer says—so considering “the number of people affected, in terms of what it’s done to their vision of the political environment, this is when we’d see those effects. It’s a little hard to say, but it can’t have been a very good effect.”

Novakowski addressed another objection to voting rights for the incarcerated: the fear that if incarcerated people are allowed to vote, they will support “pro-crime” candidates and “pro-crime” policies. “What does that really look like?” Novakowski said. “It’s just not realistic…even if there were this sort of mythical pro-crime candidate running for office, or even someone whose positions on crime are totally different than your own, you can’t not allow people to vote based on your fear that they’re going to vote for someone. That’s not democracy. That’s not what we do.”

Voting rights for the incarcerated isn’t just an academic issue—it could have a significant impact on actual election results:

George W. Bush and Al Gore

Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza emphasize that if people with felony convictions had been allowed to vote in the 2000 Florida general election—the state that Bush won over Gore by just over 500 votes—Gore would have handily won and secured the Presidency. With roughly 70,000 people disenfranchised in Florida prisons at that time, the same argument could be made for just the incarcerated vote alone.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton

More recently, in the 2016 Presidential election, Trump won Michigan by just 13,080 votes—with over 42,000 voters disenfranchised due to incarceration. This might have been enough to swing that state’s 16 electoral votes in the other direction.

Maggie Hassan and Kelly Ayotte

Perhaps more relevant might be the effect on local and state elections in that same year. In North Carolina the 2016 race for Governor was decided by just 4,772 votes, while the disenfranchised prison population was over 35,000. In the closest election that year, the New Hampshire Senate race was decided by a mere 743 votes while the right to vote has been stripped from almost 2,900in that state.

George W. Bush and Al Gore

Apart from these instances, allowing people in prison to vote could impact the outcome of local results on issues ranging from tax increases to criminal justice reform, issues with a direct effect on communities with high rates of incarceration.


In late February, a network of organizations involved in disenfranchisement issues—some focusing on the incarcerated—met to discuss the state of the movement and various related initiatives. One suggestion that emerged was to implement voter education in creative spaces often occupied by people with connections to incarceration. Another proposal was to disseminate voting information through businesses that provide transportation services to people visiting incarcerated loved ones. On the ride to connect with incarcerated friends and family, passengers would learn of voting rights, of the restrictions faced by those on the inside, and of the importance of pushing back.

Several pieces of legislation are being advanced to enfranchise every citizen silenced through incarceration. Most notable was a bill in New Jersey introduced on February 26 that would restore the vote to all people in the state, both inside and outside of prison. This would make New Jersey the third state to remove all disenfranchisement due to criminal conviction.

Outside of efforts to pass legislation, the Emancipation Initiative launched a vote donation program—its response to former Massachusetts Governor Paul Cellucci’s war against incarcerated voters, which in 2000 rolled back voting rights for the state’s prison population. The brainchild of Elly Kalfus and Rachel Corey, the “Ballots Over Bars” campaign is a collaborative effort begun by people in prison that works to “return political power to people incarcerated in Massachusetts.”

“I just had this idea one day where I said [to Rachel Corey that] everyone’s talking about the [2016] election and what a big deal it is that it’s Trump versus Hillary, and I didn’t feel passionately about it,” Kalfus explained in a telephone interview. She then asked her colleague: “Could we give our votes to someone in prison so they could choose who we should vote for?”

The group began recruiting volunteers to do just that; they were matched with people in prison, and voted as the prisoners requested. Unfortunately, the interest from people inside the prison was so great that there were not enough volunteers to match all of them with surrogate voters. “We hope to double our efforts for the next election,” Corey said. In a state where the incarcerated can run for office—but can’t even vote for themselves—the Emancipation Initiative is working to find way to amplify the voices of the incarcerated; to recognize, as Corey puts it, the right of people to be “full human beings.”

Efforts like “Ballots Over Bars” demonstrate the rising momentum from both people inside prison and their allies in the community to make universal franchise a reality. With more projects like this, the United States might actually join the ranks of countries that view incarcerated people as “full human beings.” As someone who spent over 22 years of my life denied the right to vote because of my incarceration, this would be a most welcome development.


Here are three pieces of model legislation—drafted by LEAP, and reproduced here with their permission—that your state government can copy to enable prisoners to vote. Use the table to determine which legislation model is appropriate for your state. Note that prisoners can already vote in Maine and Vermont.

A comprehensive breakdown of whether each of the 50 states (plus DC) are best suited for a constitutional amendment, a statute, or an executive order.
State Constitutional Amendment Statute Executive Order
Alabama Yes Yes
Alaska Yes Yes
Arizona Yes Yes Yes
Arkansas Yes Yes
California Yes
Colorado Yes Yes
Connecticut Yes
Delaware Yes
District of Columbia Yes
Florida Yes Yes Yes
Georgia Yes Yes Yes
Hawaii Yes Yes
Idaho Yes Yes
Illinois Yes Yes
Indiana Yes
Iowa Yes Yes Yes
Kansas Yes Yes Yes
Kentucky Yes Yes
Louisiana Yes
Maryland Yes
Massachusetts Yes Yes
Michigan Yes
Minnesota Yes Yes
Mississippi Yes Yes
Missouri Yes
Montana Yes Yes
Nebraska Yes Yes
Nevada Yes Yes
New Hampshire Yes
New Jersey Yes
New Mexico Yes Yes
New York Yes Yes Yes
North Carolina Yes Yes
North Dakota Yes Yes
Ohio Yes
Oklahoma Yes
Oregon Yes
Pennsylvania Yes
Rhode Island Yes
South Carolina Yes Yes
South Dakota Yes
Tennessee Yes
Texas Yes
Utah Yes
Virginia Yes Yes Yes
Washington Yes Yes Yes
West Virginia Yes Yes
Wisconsin Yes
Wyoming Yes Yes


People’s Policy Project is a think tank founded in 2017. The primary mission of 3P is to publish ideas and analysis that assist in the development of an economic system that serves the many, not the few.

Designed and built by Jon White.