Felony Disenfranchisement

11.30.19

More than 50 years after the Voting Rights Act, felon disenfranchisement
policies ban more than six million Americans, including more than two
million African Americans, from voting. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

More than six million Americans cannot vote due to laws that disqualify people with past felony convictions. These felony disenfranchisement policies are deeply rooted in our history of racial injustice and discrimination.

After the Civil War, the United States adopted constitutional amendments that abolished slavery and established black people’s citizenship and right to vote. The vast majority of black Americans still resided in the Southern states of the former Confederacy, and their new status as voters was a major threat to white political and economic dominance in the region.

When Reconstruction ended in 1877, federal troops abandoned the South, leaving formerly enslaved black people without protection or any mechanism to enforce their rights. Instead, officials committed to white supremacy regained control of state legislatures and systematically banned black voting through grandfather clauses, poll
taxes, literacy tests, and felony disenfranchisement, which relied on the widespread criminalization of black people to strip black communities of electoral power.

After courageous civil rights activists achieved passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, overt tactics like poll taxes were prohibited. But felony disenfranchisement laws were specifically upheld by the Supreme Court.

Today, advocates for reform are gaining ground; 23 states have expanded voting for people with felony convictions since 1997. But 48 of the 50 states still restrict voting based on a criminal conviction, disenfranchising 1 in 56 Americans and 1 in 13 African Americans nationwide.