Voting Rights and a Criminal Conviction

If you commit a felony offense, many states say you can’t be trusted to help choose leaders in this country. The line of reasoning used to enact felon disenfranchisement laws had to have been based in a feeling that felons could somehow turn the free world on its head if they were allowed to vote, or so it would seem. But some would argue the reasons were far more sinister.

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Close to 6 million Americans have had their voting rights taken away because of a criminal conviction. The rate is especially high for minorities. One in every 13, or 7.7%, of African Americans are not allowed to vote due to former incarceration or conviction. Many believe the move to restrict voting rights is nothing more than a modern Jim Crow law, actually targeting minorities for restricted rights.

Over the last decade, according to the Crime Report, 23 states have passed laws changing their felon voting rights laws—some of them restoring rights fully upon release from custody. But, in other states, former offenders must jump through hoops in order to have those rights restored. And in some, those rights can never be regained.

Twelve states feature laws that can prevent you from voting ever again following a conviction. Among these are Florida, Virginia, and Nevada—three “battleground” states in this year’s election.

Supporters of felon voting bans believe that people who violate felony laws can’t be trusted to have any hand in the writing or creation of laws or election of officials. Roger Clegg, former deputy assistant attorney general argues, “If you’re not willing to follow the law, you can’t claim the right to make the law for everybody else. When you vote, that’s what you do.”

For Clegg, voting rights should only be restored when someone can prove they’ve turned over a new leaf. Serving a lengthy sentence or satisfying the strict conditions of probation doesn’t seem to be enough.

And what no one seems to be talking about are the hundreds of people who are wrongfully convicted, exonerated, and then still unable to vote without going through a mess of bureaucracy.

The Richmond Times Dispatch recently ran a story about a man, wrongfully convicted of rape and then exonerated, who couldn’t wait to vote in this election. It would be his first time voting. Sick with cancer, he registered. But he was then informed by his attorneys that he shouldn’t vote. Less serious and decades-old felony convictions wouldn’t allow it.

Even in cases where the exonerated crime is the only one on your record, getting a declaration of “actual innocence” may be required from a judge before you can regain all of your rights, including that right to vote. In other words, if you were ever on the wrong side of the law, even if you were put on the wrong side of the law by agents of the government, you will likely have a hard time finding a say in this democratic society.

A conviction can restrict your voting rights and much more. The laws on felon disenfranchisement vary widely from state to state. If you are accused of a crime or if you are interested in pursuing a expungement of your record, contact us today to be put in touch with a local defense lawyer. 

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About David Matson