Prisoners and the Right to Vote in the United States


The United States bars nearly 5.3 million American citizens from the vote on the grounds that they committed a crime: only 25% are in prison or jail and 75% are either on probation or parole or have completed their sentences (ACLU 2006: 3). Indeed, while it may not come as a surprise that 48 states and the District of Columbia prohibit inmates from voting while incarcerated for a felony offense, lesser known is that even after the term of punishment expires, some states deny the right to vote for a period ranging from a number of years to the rest of one’s life.

The United States prison population has skyrocketed in recent decades—increasing 450% between 1980-2009 (The Pew Center 2009)—such that the country now incarcerates one percent of the adult population.  Adding those on probation and parole, one in every 31 adults, or 3.2 percent of the population is under some form of criminal justice supervision  (The Pew Center 2009).  This population is disproportionately made up of young black and Hispanic men. In some states, one in three black men is under some form of criminal justice supervision (The Pew Center 2009).

Disenfranchisement has disproportionately impacted black citizens, and other racial minorities. All have been widely criminalized since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the late 1970s. Less than two decades after this program redesigned social and criminal justice policy, one in seven black men nationally had lost the right to vote, and as many as one in four in states with the highest African American disenfranchisement rate (Alexander 2010: 188). Significantly, while disenfranchisement policies prevent 2.5% of the total population from voting, they hit over 15% of the total population of African American men (ACLU 2006: 3). Many experts claim that these figures may even understate the impact of felony disenfranchisement, because they do not incorporate the millions of ex-offenders who cannot vote in states that impose fines or fees before their voting rights can be restored (Alexander 2010: 154).   Describing these fees and their legal complications as the “new poll tax,” legal scholar Michelle Alexander has documented significant parallels between today’s voter disenfranchisement and that of the Jim Crow era (1876-1965).

During that period, African Americans were denied the vote through poll taxes, literacy tests, and felon disenfranchisement law, even though the Fifteenth Amendment to the US constitution specifically provides that the rights of US citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race or color.  Formally race-neutral devices were adopted to maintain an all white electorate (Alexander 2010: 187).

With the 2012 presidential election looming, the issue of disenfranchisement is growing in significance.  Following the 2000 election, it was widely reported that Al Gore would have been elected president of the United States rather than George W. Bush if the 600,000 felons who had completed their sentences in Florida been allowed to vote,. The largest civil rights group in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is currently petitioning the United Nations over what it sees as a concerted effort to disenfranchise black and Latino voters (Pilkington 2011).

These restrictions on voting are far from the norm elsewhere.  About half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote, while others disqualify only a small number of prisoners from the polls.  No other country permanently disenfranchises prisoners.



Works Cited

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

American Civil Liberties Union (2006) Out of Step with the World: An Analysis of Felony Disenfranchisement in the U.S. and Other Democracies. New York: ACLU. Available online:

The Pew Centre on the States (2009) “One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections.” Washington, DC: The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Ed Pilkington (2011) “NAACP warns black and Latino Americans could lost the right to vote.” The Guardian. December 5. Online: 2011/dec/05/civil-rights-naacp-voter-warning


Further Reading

Human Rights Watch (1998) Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States.

Michelle Alexander (2010) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.  New York: The New Press.

Ryan King (2008) Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States. Washington DC: Sentencing Project.

Andrew Shapiro (1993) “Challenging Criminal Disenfranchisement Under the Voting Rights Act: A New Strategy.”  Yale Law Journal 540, November.

LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

LeBaron, Genevieve

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