What is Felony Disenfranchisement?
Felony disenfranchisement is the denial of the right to vote for those convicted of felony crimes. Each state has different laws determining if felons lose the right to vote. How long felons lose the right to vote and how they regain the right to vote, if at all, is also determined state by state. This creates a confusing system that deters those with the right to vote from voting.
Why should I care?
Felony laws were written into state constitutions and statutes to explicitly limit the political power of African-Americans and other marginalized groups. In 2020, roughly 5.2 million of the electorate could not vote because of felony disenfranchisement (Uggen et al, 2020). Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised, compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population. (Uggen et al, 2020).
Equal voting rights for all citizens are essential to a healthy and functioning democracy.
What can I do about Felony Disenfranchisement?
- Become informed about the laws affecting your area of practice, including the right of individuals in pre-trial detention to vote by absentee ballot.
- Research the laws in your state to help guide your clients through the deliberately confusing laws and help them avoid potential criminal charges.
- Research the clinical repercussions of felony disenfranchisement on your clients and the benefits of restoring the vote on their health and wellbeing and recidivism rates.
Felony Disenfranchisement and Social Work Action
Hill, K.,Tanya, R.S., Lane, S., Shannon, S. (2020) Giving a Voice to Those with Felony Convictions: A Call to Action, Social Work, https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swaa036
“Felony Disenfranchisement: Social Work’s Call to Action”
A presentation completed for the Council on Social Work Education by Tanya Rhodes Smith, MSW, Shannon Lane, MSW, PhD, and Katharine Hill, MPP, MSW, PhD, LISW.
- Help your clients vote! Do not assume that they should not vote as felons to avoid the risk of violating state laws. This assumption strips clients of their rights and limits their agency.
- Educate clients, staff, and communities on these rules.
- Support the political power of individuals and communities hardest hit by felony disenfranchisement by including nonpartisan voter registration, education, and outreach as part of micro, mezzo, and macro social work practice.
- Find and support local, grassroots efforts to expand voting rights, which are often led by the communities most impacted by felony voting laws.
Once you are informed, the next step is to advocate. Help the disenfranchised fight for the right to vote and end these racist and draconian laws to clear the way for the process of justice and healing. Examples of advocacy includes:
- Advocate to expand voting rights and access and the elimination of felony disenfranchisement. The Sentencing Project, The Prison Policy Initiative, the ACLU, DEMOS, and the Brennan Center for Justice are excellent partners and sources of research and data.
- Participate in the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign. In addition, NASW and the Social Work Votes Collaborative can provide resources and support for national and state-level efforts. Encourage your local NASW chapter and other professional organizations to be actively involved in these actions.
- Advocate for criminal justice reform to end mass incarceration and the racist laws and policies that lead to mass incarceration and felony disenfranchisement.
Fact Sheet Example
Written Testimony (Rhodes Smith, T., 2019):
There is significant momentum nationwide to restore voting rights to people who are living in our communities but have convictions in their past. The Brennan Center is at the forefront of this movement, providing research into state laws and proposing model legislation. For more information regarding current disenfranchisement laws or policies, and voting restoration efforts
Disenfranchisement laws exclude millions of Americans from participating in our democracy. The Brennan Center tracks these laws state by state.
A completely anonymous and free resource to find out if you or someone you know has a felony conviction and is able to register/restore your right to vote, concurrent with the laws in your state.
Reports and Fact Sheets
Felony disenfranchisement, the practice of removing the right to vote from people who have been convicted of a felony, is at odds with the core values of the social work profession and an example of the structural racism built into our democracy. Historically, felony disenfranchisement laws were written into state constitutions and statutes to explicitly limit the political power of African Americans and other marginalized groups. https://doi.org/10.1093/sw/swaa036
The United States stands alone among modern democracies in stripping voting rights from millions of citizens on the basis of criminal convictions. Across the country, states impose varying felony disenfranchisement policies, preventing an estimated 6.1 million Americans from casting ballots. To give a sense of scope — this population is larger than the voting-eligible population of New Jersey. And of this total, nearly 4.7 million are people living in our communities — working, paying taxes, and raising families, all while barred from joining their neighbors at the polls.