Attorney General Eric Holder Calls on States to Restore Voting Rights to Formerly Incarcerated Americans


United States Attorney General Eric Holder last week called on states to repeal laws that prohibit millions of formerly incarcerated Americans from voting.

Today, an estimated 5.8 million Americans are prohibited from voting because of current or previous felony convictions, Mr. Holder said — more than the individual populations of 31 states.

Nearly one in 13 African American adults (2.2 million citizens) are banned from voting because of these laws. In Alabama, nearly a third of African American men has lost the right to vote. These laws, Mr. Holder said, “with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression. And they have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”

Many Southern states enacted disenfranchisement schemes after Reconstruction to reduce the electoral strength of newly-freed African American populations. “The resulting system of unequal enforcement – and discriminatory application of the law – led to a situation, in 1890, where ninety percent of the Southern prison population was Black. And those swept up in this system too often had their rights rescinded, their dignity diminished, and the full measure of their citizenship revoked for the rest of their lives. They could not vote.”

Some states have enacted reforms, but most have failed to meaningfully confront the vestiges of these “profoundly outdated” practices. The current situation is “too unjust to tolerate” and requires immediate and decisive action, Mr. Holder said.

The nation’s top prosecutor explained that “permanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.” Disenfranchisement laws increase the likelihood that formerly incarcerated people will commit future crimes by perpetuating the stigma and isolation imposed on them and “[t]hey undermine the reentry process and defy the principles – of accountability and rehabilitation – that guide our criminal justice policies.”

In fact, evidence shows that former prisoners whose voting rights are restored are significantly less likely to return to the criminal justice system. A recent study by the Florida parole commission found that, compared to the overall three-year recidivism rate of 33 percent, the rate among whose who were re-enfranchised after they’d served their time was just a third of that.

The United States remains an extreme outlier in allowing lifetime voting bans. Most industrialized nations allow all nonincarcerated people to vote, and many even allow voting in prison.

Changing these unjust laws is “about who we are as a nation,” Mr. Holder concluded. “It’s about confronting – with clear eyes, and in frank terms – disparities and divisions that are unworthy of the greatest justice system the world has ever known. It’s about ensuring that we hold accountable those who do wrong – while preserving the values our nation has always held sacred. And it’s about protecting the American people and strengthening our communities – while enabling all of our citizens, no matter who they are or where they’re from, to make their voices heard.”