More Than 6 Million Americans Can’t Vote in This Election

One out of every 40 adults is barred from voting because of current or past felony convictions.
(Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)
Oct 6, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As Nov. 8 inches closer, many U.S. voters complain of election fatigue. Campaign ads, constant mudslinging, and the inescapable chatter of talking heads are wearing out their welcome. Can’t we just cast our votes and move on with our lives? More than 6 million Americans will never get that degree of closure, according to a report published Thursday, because of state laws that bar people with current or past felony convictions from voting.

The last several years have seen a steady shift toward relaxing laws that bar ex-felons from voting or restoring the rights of people with past convictions. Both Maryland and Virginia passed legislation this year to restore voting rights for citizens with felony records, and Alabama’s legislature approved a bill that aims to speed up the voting rights restoration process. Of the 6.1 million people barred from voting, 4.7 million are no longer incarcerated.

“It’s disturbing that in an election as critical as this one, we have 6 million people who will not be participating—not because they’re not interested in the outcome but because we have these antiquated laws,” Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, told TakePart. The criminal justice reform organization led by Mauer commissioned the report.

In spite of changes taking place at the state level and the incremental decline in state and federal prison populations, the report’s authors found that recent progress has largely been offset by states that permanently bar former felons from voting, such as Florida and Iowa.

Florida is home to the largest disenfranchised voting population in the country—1.7 million people. It also is a key battleground state in the election, making the question of who is prevented from voting even more critical.

“In 2000, we had a national election decided in Florida by a difference of 537 votes,” said Mauer. “On the day of the election, there were 600,000 people in the state who had completed their sentences but were ineligible to vote. They could’ve decided the election.”

Racial disparities that pervade the criminal justice system are also reflected in the disenfranchised voter population, according to the report. Nationally, one in every 13 black adults can’t vote because of a felony conviction.

“Disenfranchisement really does reshape the electorate in critical ways,” Christopher Uggen, regents’ professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota and the report’s lead author, told TakePart. “It weakens the collective impact of the black vote.”

Uggen, who has studied the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions since the 1990s, observed that the disqualification of voters with criminal records tends to disadvantage the Democratic Party.

On Wednesday, California joined the growing number of states that are moving toward more lenient voting policies for people with felony convictions. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow thousands of people serving jail time for felonies to vote while incarcerated starting next year. The campaign supporting the measure leaned heavily on the notion that permitting people to vote while incarcerated could reduce recidivism by helping them maintain a connection to their communities.

That notion resonates strongly with Mauer. “It’s in everyone’s interest that we encourage [incarcerated people] to stay connected with developments in their community,” he said. “It’s not only important in terms of democratic participation but for public safety.”