Almost all states place restrictions on the voting rights of individuals convicted of felonies. But, in many states, individuals with felony convictions can restore their right to vote. You might be surprised to learn that in almost 20 states a person with a felony conviction can vote after leaving prison, even if the person is still under parole or release supervision.
This article highlights the various state practices when it comes to felon voting restrictions and restoring the right to vote. At the end of the article, you'll find links to resources and organizations that provide either assistance or information on voting rights and restoring the right to vote.
Voting rights for felons hinge on the state law where the person lives and where the person was convicted.
Maine and Vermont are the only two states where people with felony convictions never lose the right to vote, even while incarcerated. In both states, inmates can vote by absentee ballot using their last address in the state. (Click on the state link to learn more.)
Every other state places restrictions on the voting rights of felons. Generally, states fall into one of three categories.
The majority of states fall under the first two categories.
While incarcerated. Around 18 states and the District of Columbia restrict voting rights of felons while they are incarcerated. For the most part, incarceration includes time served in local jails, state prisons, or federal prisons. California is an exception—it doesn’t restrict voting rights of felons serving time in a county jail (but felons serving time in state or federal prison are not eligible to vote). (Cal. Elec. Code § 2101 (2020).)
Completion of sentence. In approximately twenty states, felons don’t regain the right to vote until “completion of their sentence.” A person’s sentence generally includes time incarcerated and time on probation or parole. But the definition varies by state. In some states, completion of sentence also includes payment of all outstanding court fines and fees and restitution orders (such as Florida).
After completion of sentence or indefinitely. Around 11 states restrict the voting rights of felons for a time after the person completes all of their sentencing terms. Some states require the person to wait a set amount of time. For instance, Nebraska restores a person's right to vote two years after completing a felony sentence. Other states require a person to apply for and receive some type of governmental approval (such as a pardon or court order) before restoring their civil rights. In a few states, individuals with convictions for violent felonies lose their right to vote permanently.
State Laws Can Change
State laws can change quickly—whether it's the legislature, governor, or courts taking action. For instance, on August 5, 2020, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds restored the right to vote for felons who have completed their sentences (with some exceptions). And the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill at the end of 2019 that allows people on felony parole and probation to vote. Make sure to continually check your state’s election website to stay current on any legal changes.
State laws also vary when it comes to how rights are restored and whether restoration of rights is automatic or conditioned on additional factors.
Automatic restoration. In some states, restoration of rights occurs automatically upon being released from incarceration or completing the sentencing terms. Once the person is no longer restricted from voting, the person's rights are restored and no additional action (other than registering to vote) needs to happen.
Conditional restoration. Other states make the restoration of rights conditional on the person taking or completing an additional step after release or completion of their sentence. Alabama, for instance, requires persons convicted of certain felonies to complete their sentence and then apply for a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote. In other states, a person might have to seek a court order, a pardon, or a certificate from another authority (such as the Board of Parole) to restore their civil rights after they've completed their sentence. And, as with automatic restoration, the person also needs to register to vote.
In some states, the department of corrections informs ex-inmates that their right to vote can be restored and what steps a person must take. But it's generally up to the individual to find out if they are eligible to vote, based on their criminal history and the laws of the state (or states) in which they were convicted and currently reside.
As always, it depends. Many individuals held in jails are awaiting trial (pretrial detainees) or sentenced for misdemeanors. Those individuals who don't have felony convictions might be eligible to vote. In a few states, like Maine and Vermont, inmates can vote in jail even with a felony conviction. Some jails and outside organizations actively work to make voting in jails possible. In other areas, a person might need to do the legwork (like applying for an absentee ballot) on their own. Check out the resources below to learn more.
Several organizations provide information on restoring the right to vote. One website—RestoreYourVote.org—provides a series of questions to determine a person’s eligibility to vote and provides links to state-specific resources. Another good resource is your state’s election office, which is usually a part of the secretary of state’s office. This website provides links and phone numbers for each state’s election office.
In some states, determining eligibility to vote can be as simple as whether or not a person is incarcerated. But, in other states, you might want the following information on hand:
If you have questions about the law or if you believe an election official isn’t correctly following the law, contact an attorney or reach out to an advocacy organization for assistance.