Where People Convicted of Felonies Can Vote in the U.S.

Millions of Americans convicted of serious crimes can't vote

Jail cell
Convicted felons in most states can vote after they complete their sentences.

Darrin Klimek / Getty Images

The right to vote is considered one of the most sacred and fundamental tenets of American democracy. Even people convicted of felonies, the most serious crimes in the penal system, are allowed to vote in most states. Convicted felons are even allowed to vote from behind prison bars in some states.

Those who support restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies, after they complete their sentences and pay their debts to society, say it is improper to permanently strip them of the power to take part in elections.

Restoring the Right

In Virginia, a midterm ballot initiative in 2018 restored voting rights to people convicted of felonies after they have completed their sentences in full, including parole and probation. But the initiative is undergoing a court case as of early September 2020 over a contested debt-paying provision. Voting rights were not restored for anyone convicted of murder or a felony sex act.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to tens of thousands of convicted felons on a case-by-case basis in 2016, after the state's high court rejected his blanket order earlier in the year. McAuliffe said:

"I personally believe in the power of second chances and in the dignity and worth of every single human being. These individuals are gainfully employed. They send their children and their grandchildren to our schools. They shop at our grocery stores and they pay taxes. And I am not content to condemn them for eternity as inferior, second-class citizens."

The Sentencing Project estimates that about 6 million people are not able to vote because of laws that temporarily or permanently ban people convicted of felonies from voting. The group notes that the laws affect Black people at far greater rates:

"One in 13 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate more than four times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 7.4 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8 percent of the non-African American population."

While felons are allowed to vote after they've completed their sentences in most cases, the matter is left up to the states. Virginia, for example, is one of nine states in which people convicted of felonies receive the right to vote only by a specific action from the governor. Others automatically restore the right to vote after a person convicted of a felony serves time. The policies vary from state to state.

Attorney Estelle H. Rogers, writing in a 2014 policy paper, said the various policies in reinstating voting rights creates too much confusion. Rogers wrote:

"Policies on felon re-enfranchisement are inconsistent across the 50 states and create confusion among former offenders who wish to regain the right to vote, as well as the officials charged with implementing the laws. The result is a network of misinformation that discourages some legally eligible voters from registering to vote and places undue restrictions on others during the registration process. On the other hand, former offenders who are not fully informed of their state’s restrictions may register and vote, and, in doing so, unwittingly commit a new crime."

Here's a look at which states do what, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States With No Ban

These two states allow those convicted of felonies to vote even while they serve their terms. The voters in these states never lose their rights.

  • Maine
  • Vermont

States With Ban While Incarcerated

These states and the District of Columbia strip voting rights from people convicted of felonies while they're serving their terms but restore them automatically once they are out of prison.

  • Colorado
  • District of Columbia
  • Hawaii
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Montana
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New Hampshire
  • North Dakota
  • Ohio
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • Utah

Rights Restored After Completion of Sentence

These states restore voting rights to those convicted of felony crimes only after they have completed their entire sentences including a prison term, parole, and probation, among other requirements.

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Connecticut
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

States Requiring Further Action or Waiting Period

In these states, voting rights are not automatically restored and, in some cases, the governor must do it on a case-by-case basis. In Florida, the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals was weighing whether a provision requiring felons to pay certain debts before they could vote constituted a modern “poll tax.” The court heard the case in mid-August 2020 and was still considering it in early September.

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Delaware
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • Kentucky
  • Mississippi
  • Nebraska
  • Tennessee
  • Virginia
  • Wyoming

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. Vozzella, Laura. “McAuliffe Restores Voting Rights to 13,000 Felons.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 22 Aug. 2016.

  2. Uggen, Christopher, and Henderson Hill. “6 Million Lost Voters: State-Level Estimates of Felony Disenfranchisement, 2016.” The Sentencing Project, 19 Oct. 2016.

  3. Potyondy, Patrick. Felon Voting Rights, www.ncsl.org.

  4. Fineout, Gary. “Federal Appeals Court Considers Whether to Uphold Florida Felon Voting Law.” Politico PRO, 18 Aug. 2020.

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "Where People Convicted of Felonies Can Vote in the U.S." ThoughtCo, Sep. 12, 2020, thoughtco.com/where-felons-can-and-cannot-vote-3367689. Murse, Tom. (2020, September 12). Where People Convicted of Felonies Can Vote in the U.S. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/where-felons-can-and-cannot-vote-3367689 Murse, Tom. "Where People Convicted of Felonies Can Vote in the U.S." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/where-felons-can-and-cannot-vote-3367689 (accessed June 6, 2023).