Voting Rights for Felons and Ex-Felons

The expansions of the franchise in the late 1960s and 1970s reached one more group, at least a little bit. Efforts to enfranchise even the most unpopular and least powerful group of all citizens—those who had been convicted of crimes—began to gain momentum. Felons had long be denied the right to vote, and that penalty was even given something of a constitutional sanction by the 14th Amendment, which allowed states to deny the right to vote to criminals without sanction. 

In 1974, most states continued to disenfranchise felons and those convicted of certain specified crimes. In roughly half the states, disenfranchisement was permanent, but in several an appeal to the governor or other state official could be made to have voting rights restored. In other states, criminals were disenfranchised for a fixed period of time or simply while incarcerated or through the period of parole. 

The exact list of crimes that triggered disenfranchisement varied considerably from state to state. Major felonies and violent crimes triggered exclusion almost everywhere, but sometimes lesser offenses like vagrancy and theft were also enumerated. In many states, the list of crimes were holdovers from the laws designed to exclude African Americans and immigrant populations. 

Efforts to remove criminal exclusions during the Civil Rights Movement were not terribly successful, but over course of the ensuing decades, echoes of the impulse to expand the franchise led many states to remove felon disfranchisement laws, or at least loosen their restrictions. 

By the late 1990s, only ten states still disenfranchised felons for life, but every state except Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont continued to disenfranchise felons while they were still incarcerated. Many states continued their ban through probation and parole. 

Felon disfranchisement continues to be a hot-button political issue: approximately 4 million Americans were excluded from voting at the beginning of the 21st century, most of them minorities. 14% of African American men were barred from polls nationwide in 2000.