Last week, both the Senate and the House introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, legislation that would restore the right to vote in federal elections to millions of Americans with felony convictions who have completed their prison sentences.
Approximately 5.3 million Americans are denied the right to vote because of past felony convictions. Four million of them are out of prison — living, working, and raising families in their communities — and would have their federal voting rights restored under this legislation.
State laws on voting rights for ex-felons vary. Maine and Vermont allow everyone with a felony conviction to vote, even those who remain incarcerated. Virginia and Kentucky permanently deny voting rights to those with felony convictions. Most states fall in between those two extremes, leading to widespread confusion among citizens and poll workers, which sometimes leads to eligible citizens being denied the right to vote.
Felony disenfranchisement laws were originally passed during the Jim Crow-era to prevent Blacks from participating in elections. If current trends continue, one-third of the next generation of African-American men will be disenfranchised during their lifetime. The United States is one of few western democracies that permits the permanent disenfranchisement of those with past felony convictions.
“Voting helps to build a sense of civic responsibility and commitment to community; denying this fundamental right does nothing to help people with a conviction in their past become better citizens,” said Senator Russ Feingold, D. MD. “The expansion of voting rights to the poor, women, minorities and young people is one of the greatest stories in our country’s history. We should continue this legacy by expanding the right to vote to those who have fully paid their debt to society.”