Felons and the Vote

In the Digital Age, a felony conviction will follow an offender for the rest of his life and will continue to be stapled to every job application he fills out. Convictions are public record, and anyone can access this information from any of a dozen websites that provide the particulars about the offense committed, the current status of the offender, and in some cases the offender’s current address. During the application process, one of the questions asks if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime other than a minor traffic infraction, usually with the disclaimer that “conviction does not necessarily disqualify an applicant,” and “the decision will be based on the type of conviction as it relates to the positon applied for.” This might seem well and good for some, but the bottom line is if a felony shows up on your background check, you are not hireable.

Upon release from prison, the stigma of a felony conviction will continue to shadow the offender as he tries to navigate the process of parole, probation, and other court-appointed obligations, which can be overwhelming as that person is reintroduced to society and tries to secure a permanent residence, find employment, and win back the trust and respect of loved ones and family.

With all these obstacles that require immediate attention to overcome, restoring voting rights may seem to be at the bottom of a priority list, but many think the issue deserves more attention. While most citizens register to vote with a few clicks of a mouse or a checkmark on the paperwork at the DMV, convicted felons face additional hurdles, and the requirements vary from state to state. Some states require voting rights to be restored by the governor or the court. Others states with a more generous attitude toward felons, including Maine, extend the right to vote into the prisons and jails, allowing inmates to vote even while incarcerated. They reason that the recidivism rate for those returning to prison is 52%, and these people are still Americans.

According to “The Sentencing Project,” as many as 6 million Americans, or 2.5% of the voting-age population, are “disenfranchised,” or stripped of their voting rights. 1.3 million of them alone hail from Florida, where civil rights activists, including the NAACP, are working to identify and register those who may be unaware of their status and assist them in regaining this important civil right. The numbers are staggering: in 2010, 1,323,360 ex-convicts were disenfranchised. Of that number, only 264,059 had their voting privelege restored.

The implications of these numbers are huge. In Florida, thousands of convicted felons are unaware that their right to vote has been restored, but it’s worth mentioning that the 2000 Florida presidential election was decided by only a few hundred votes. Since Florida is a seemingly perpetual swing state, a small number of votes could again cinch a victory in any given future election, making the effort to track down every non-registered but eligible voter indeed a worthwhile cause that would restore some sense of patriotism in a group of people that does not realize just how powerful their situation makes them.