A record number of U.S. citizens nearly 6 million will sit out the upcoming presidential election because they are incarcerated, on parole or probation, or are ex-felons.
Only Maine and Vermont do not take voting rights from people convicted of a felony, even those who are incarcerated model states, according to The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that does research on criminal justice issues. In another 35 states, inmates and parolees can't vote and 30 states bar probationers, too. In nine states, some or all ex-felons are forever banned from the electoral process.
"Voting is a fundamental right and losing the right to vote is never a part of the sentencing structure," said Nicole D. Porter, advocacy director for The Sentencing Project. "It doesn't help to improve public safety and it may weaken interest in being rehabilitated if [felons] feel marginalized in society."
Utah was once among the "model" states, and even after tightening voting rules is still more lenient in its treatment of felons. The Beehive State is among 13 states that bar inmates from casting ballots in elections, but reinstate voting rights once a felon is paroled, on probation or has successfully completed his or her sentence. An ex-felon may also hold elected office in Utah after 10 years or once all felony convictions are expunged from his or her record.
And last year, the Utah Legislature passed a bill reinstating voting rights for someone convicted of a misdemeanor election offense.
"The main issue this bill is addressing is, a felon has the right to vote reinstated upon being released from incarceration, but a person convicted of a misdemeanor election offense loses their right to vote and hold office for life," said Rep. John G. Mathis, R-Vernal, in a committee hearing on HB31. "If you make one mistake in your life, you're never allowed to vote again ever in your life?"
That's "pretty serious" he added.
In the states that have rescinded voting rights of inmates, parolees, probationers and some or all ex-felons, the ranks of the disenfranchised are significant and reflect the increasing number of people supervised by the U.S. Correction system, according to The Sentencing Project. In six states Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia more than 7 percent of the adult population can't vote because of a felony history. The effect is even greater in three states when broken down by race. In Florida, Kentucky and Virginia, about one-fifth of African American residents are disenfranchised because of criminal status or history key, according to the project, since Florida and Virginia are considered swing states in the coming presidential election.
In Utah, inmates made up less than half a percent of eligible voters, according to the 2010 statistics used in project's report. But looked at by race, the disenfranchised rate for African Americans is 3 percent, triple their representation in the state's population as a whole.
The inmate population also continues to creep higher, due in part to harsher penalties and longer sentences. In 2000, when George W. Bush was elected president, there were 5,573 inmates incarcerated in Utah; in the last presidential election, when Barack Obama took office, there were 6,489. This November, about 6,800 Utah inmates will sit out the election.
Until 1998, Utah was one of four states that allowed incarcerated felons to vote. That year, lawmakers passed a law which voters later approved as a constitutional amendment to permit voting only by felons on parole, probation or who completed their terms, which one lawmaker suggested would "contribute to their rehabilitation." At the time, 95 of the prison's then 4,600 inmates had been registered to vote in the previous general election.
Thad Hall, a University of Utah associate professor of political science, said cultural mores may be at play in Utah.
Many Utahns view "people as being redeemable," Hall said. They want felons punished, but not unnecessarily.
"We tend to be a state [where] we believe in people being self-sufficient, but also believe in people being part of a community," he said. "There is a cultural bias in not excluding people forever from being part of that society. ... It is an area where Utah shows a more enlightened policy than a lot of states in that we allow people who've made mistakes to participate in the process again and we don't hold a grudge against them forever."
In 2006, the legislature clarified the law to apply the same conditions to a person convicted of a felony in other states and also restored an ex-felon's right to hold office after meeting certain requirements.
"When these felons have done everything in their power to make things right from the criminal activity they've done, they are then becoming taxpayers of our society … and I don't know that we should be barring or withholding their constitutional right to be able to run or hold office," said then Rep. Neil A. Hansen, D-Ogden, as lawmakers tussled with the issue. "The public has the right to decide that."
Porter agrees with that thinking.
"Part of the criminal justice sentence, particularly the rehabilitation part, is ensuring that people who have offended against the community are good citizens," she said. "One way to demonstrate good citizenship is to participate in civil society, by voting, being a good neighbor and supporting your family. … Voting is one way to encourage people to be good citizens, and it is incredibly important for folks who may have offended the community to not be marginalized so they don't re-offend and don't feel excluded from fully participating."
By the numbers: Felons and their voting rights
2 • Maine and Vermont are the only states that do not restrict voting rights of inmates or felons.
3 • States in which 20 percent or more of the African American population can't vote because of criminal status or history.
9 • States that bar some or all ex-felons from ever voting.
13 • States, including Utah, that bar only inmates from voting.
35 • States that disenfranchise inmates, parolees and probationers.
Source: The Sentencing Project, July 2012 report