If a person is convicted of first-degree murder in the state of Vermont, he or she will retain the right to vote — even while incarcerated. But a person who commits perjury in Mississippi could be permanently barred from casting a ballot there.
It is up to states — not the federal government — to say whether felons can vote, and which ones, and when. So the rules for convicted criminals can change, sometimes drastically, from one state to the next. (The issue can be knotty within states, too: This past week, New York’s governor announced plans to sidestep a resistant state Legislature to give the vote to felons on parole.)
It’s a lot to keep track of, but here’s an overview of where states stand — at least for now — on felons’ voting rights.
Who is Affected?
The exact number of felons in the country is hard to pin down. One study, led by Sarah K.S. Shannon, an assistant sociology professor at the University of Georgia, estimated that about 8 percent of U.S. adults had a felony record in 2010.
Shannon also worked with the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization focused on criminal justice reform, on a 2016 report estimating that 6.1 million Americans had been barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. Experts say that disparities in sentencing can make felony voting laws inherently discriminatory against minorities and people with low incomes.
“In terms of inequality, clearly, felony disenfranchisement laws have racially disproportionate effects. Our estimates lay that bare,” Shannon said. “In addition, because these laws can vary so widely by state, the effects are also spatially disparate, impacting some states’ electorates more than others.”
Where a Felon Might Never Vote Again
In some states, a person convicted of a felony can be permanently barred from the ballot box. But it often depends on the exact nature of the crime.
Under current laws in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, for instance, people convicted of murder or rape cannot vote for the rest of their lives (absent some special intervention, like a pardon).
In other states, like Kentucky and Iowa, felons who serve their full sentences, including parole, must apply to state officials in order to regain their right to vote. It is not automatic. Florida is similar, only there, felons must wait at least five years after serving their full sentences before they can apply. (Felons’ voting rights in Florida have been the subject of a high-profile court battle in recent months, and residents there will vote on the issue this year.)
Other states where felons may have to apply to regain voting rights, often depending on the severity of the crime, are Wyoming, Nevada and Delaware.
Prison, Parole or Probation?
In most states, felons cannot vote while they are in prison but can regain their voting rights after they are released (as in Massachusetts and Hawaii), after they complete their parole (as in Colorado and Connecticut), or when they are no longer on parole or probation (as in New Jersey and Texas).
California relaxed its rules a little in 2016. Felons sentenced to county jails there can now vote while in custody, but the shift did not apply to those who were sentenced to a state or federal prison.
And there are two states that do not revoke criminals’ right to cast a ballot: Vermont and Maine. There, felons can vote even when they are behind bars.
“The state disparities are really astounding,” said Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota who also worked on the 2016 Sentencing Project study. “It is definitely confusing at election time, and many former felons are risk-averse — they may not vote if they are afraid of getting a felony conviction for illegal voting.”
Interventions from the Executive Branch
In New York and Virginia, governors have taken it upon themselves to extend more voting rights to felons despite more restrictive state laws.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, a Democrat, said this past week that he intended to use an executive order to restore voting rights to felons who are on parole, essentially circumventing legislation that allowed felons to vote only once they were on probation or had completed parole.
Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, did something similar in 2016 when he issued an executive order to restore voting rights for felons who had served their full sentences. The Virginia Supreme Court struck that down, so McAuliffe instead began restoring voting eligibility for felons on an individual basis. Current Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat like his predecessor, is continuing those efforts. Voting rights have so far been restored to more than 173,000 people.
For comprehensive lists of the laws governing felons’ voting rights in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, try the ones compiled by ProCon.org, a nonprofit public charity, or the National Conference of State Legislatures. The U.S. Department of Justice has also put together a list of links to state government materials on voter registration.