Beyond Bars: Why Convicted Felons Deserve the Right to Vote

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readDec 8, 2023

Michael Bennett (PPS ‘25)

Michael Bennett (PPS ‘25)

In 2018, Florida passed a bill that restored voting rights to most convicted felons after completion of their sentence. However, many barriers were put in the way of felons trying to register to vote. A man named Steven Warner completed his sentence for a nonviolent drug offense and was ready to participate in democracy again. Yet, when he attempted to vote he was told that he owed over $1000 in court fees. He had never been notified of these fees and was unable to pay them.

After a legal battle, a judge ruled that Florida’s policies that restrict felons right to vote were unconstitutional, and that they could not restrict a person’s right to vote based on one’s inability to pay. Warner was then able to register to vote in the 2018 midterms and serves as a reminder to the hardships that convicted felons must go through to regain voting rights.

In Mississippi, many obstacles exist for their convicted felons to receive voting rights as well. Most felons can only restore their voting rights by obtaining a specific order from the governor or a specific measure by the legislature. Only a small number of these proposed measures are actually passed, and the whole process is often expensive and arbitrary.

The fact is, many governments still view voting as a privilege rather than the right that it is.

Convicted felons have paid their debt to society and have served their punishment. There is no reason they should be barred from participating in democracy. Only 21 states allow automatic restoration for convicted felons after their sentence is completed, and it is time for the other states to catch up.

Voting is a basic human right and is something that the United States is founded on. All citizens should be allowed to participate in a democratic society, although the United States has a messy history that involves denying many groups the right to vote. The United States is perpetuating a similar injustice by disenfranchising felons.

Many felons already struggle to reintegrate into society after being released from prison due to numerous obstacles. Imagine you get released from prison after a 10-year sentence and feel rehabilitated. You want to get a job and move up in the world, but the only jobs hiring ex-cons are the ones that your parole officer recommends, or like many ex-cons, you start your own job as an independent contractor. Or if you want to take some classes in order to get a better job, odds are a lot of schools will not accept you. It is clear that immediately you do not have a lot of opportunity to succeed fresh out of prison. Now imagine, you cannot vote for someone that can help you live out your dreams because your state government decides that because of your prior conviction, you are not eligible for liberty.

This is reality for 4.6 million American citizens.

Crime and systemic issues such as poverty, mental health, and lack of quality of education correlate in the US. Two out of every three ex-offenders are arrested again within three years after their release, and more than 50% get put behind bars again. These staggering numbers are in part due to the large number of ex-cons that are denied voting rights after being released. An ex-con is given an impossible task to succeed after prison, and then they are told they cannot help change policy to give themselves more of a chance. This only perpetuates these underlying issues and contributes to the crushing cycle of poverty in the US.

What needs to change? Former felons should have their voting rights automatically restored after completion of their sentence. This would eliminate the need for ex-cons to go through the costly and complicated process of reclaiming their right to vote. Eliminating the arbitrary fees and simplifying the process is a terrific way to allow former felons the right to participate in this democratic society. Not only will this help the futures of more than 650,000 American citizens being released from prison every year, but also help more than half of them from returning to prison within five years. More citizens voting can help break the system of poverty and create better futures for so many Americans, and it is imperative that states allow former felons to vote.

Michael Bennett is from Denver, Colorado and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

--

--