Restoration of Voting Rights for Felons: A State-By-State Policy Choice

by December 5, 2017

Graphic of a human silhouette behind jail bars.Please Note:  The following information is provided for background information only. NCSL is unable to assist in or offer advice on the restoration of voting rights. We recommend that anyone interested in obtaining specific information on how to regain voting rights contact election officials in the jurisdiction where the person wishes to register and vote. To find contact information for your local election official click here.

Restoration of Voting Rights for Felons

It has been common practice in the United States to make felons ineligible to vote, in some cases permanently. Over the last few decades, the general trend has been toward reinstating the right to vote at some point, although this is a state-by-state policy choice. (See Recent State Action below for a chronology.)

Currently, state approaches to felon disenfranchisement vary tremendously. NCSL has divided states into four categories, as detailed in Table 1 below.

In all cases, “automatic restoration” does not mean that voter registration is automatic. Typically prison officials automatically inform election officials that an individual’s rights have been restored. The person is then responsible for re-registering through normal processes. Some states, California is one example, require that voter registration information be provided to formerly incarcerated people.

In summary:

  • In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.
  • In 14 states and the District of Columbia, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release.
  • In 22 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well.
  • In 12 states felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, or face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) before voting rights can be restored. These states are listed in the fourth category on Table 1. Details on these states are found in Table 2 below.

Table One: Restoration of Voting Rights After Felony Convictions

NEVER LOSE RIGHT TO VOTELOST ONLY WHILE INCARCERATED |

AUTOMATIC RESTORATION AFTER RELEASE

LOST UNTIL COMPLETION OF SENTENCE (PAROLE AND/OR PROBATION) | AUTOMATIC RESTORATION AFTERLOST UNTIL COMPLETION OF SENTENCE | IN SOME STATES A POST-SENTENCING WAITING PERIOD | ADDITIONAL ACTION REQUIRED FOR RESTORATION (1)
MaineDistrict of ColumbiaAlaskaAlabama
VermontHawaiiArkansasArizona
IllinoisCalifornia (2)Delaware
IndianaColoradoFlorida
Maryland (3)ConnecticutIowa
MassachusettsGeorgiaKentucky
MichiganIdahoMississippi
MontanaKansasNebraska
New HampshireLouisianaNevada
North DakotaMinnesotaTennessee
OhioMissouriVirginia
OregonNew Jersey Wyoming
PennsylvaniaNew Mexico
Rhode IslandNew York
UtahNorth Carolina
Oklahoma
South Carolina
South Dakota
Texas
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin

(1) Details on the process for restoration of rights is included in Table 2 below.

(2) In 2016, California passed legislation allowing those in county jails to vote while incarcerated, but not those in state or federal prison.

(3) In Maryland, convictions for buying or selling votes can only be restored through pardon.

Table Two: Details on Policies for Restoration of Rights
STATEDETAILS ON POLICIES FOR RESTORATION OF RIGHTS
AlabamaA crime of “moral turpitude” is a permanently disenfranchising crime in the Alabama Constitution (Ala. Const. Art. VIII, § 177). Before 2017 there was no comprehensive list of felonies that involve moral turpitude which would disqualify a person from voting. In 2017, HB 282 defined which crimes fit this category (Ala. Code § 17-3-30.1).
ArizonaA conviction for a felony suspends the rights of the person to vote (A.R.S. § 13-904) unless they have been restored to civil rights (Ariz. Const. Art. 7 § 2). First time offenders have rights restored upon completion of probation and payment of any fine or restitution (A.R.S. § 13-912). A person who has been convicted of two or more felonies may have civil rights restored by the judge who discharges him at the end of the term of probation or by applying to the court for restoration of rights (A.R.S. § 13-905).
DelawarePeople who are convicted of disqualifying felonies (murder, bribery, sexual offenses) are permanently disenfranchised. Those disqualified as a voter because of another type of felony shall have the disqualification removed upon being pardoned or after the expiration of the sentence, whichever comes first (Del. Const., Art. 5, § 2). In 2013 (HB 10) Delaware removed its five-year waiting period, allowing those convicted of non-disqualifying offenses to vote upon completion of sentence and supervision.
FloridaUpon conviction of a felony, the civil rights of the person convicted shall be suspended in Florida until such rights are restored by a full pardon, conditional pardon, or restoration of civil rights by the governor (Flor. Const. Art. 4 § 8, F.S.A. § 944.292). The Executive Clemency Board sets the rules for restoration of civil rights, which includes a 5- or 7-year waiting period, depending on the seriousness of the offense. There is a list of crimes for which an individual may never apply for rights restoration.
IowaA person convicted of any infamous crime shall not be entitled to the privilege of an elector (Iowa Const. Art. 2, § 5). In 2016 the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the ban on felon voting, finding that all felonies are “infamous crimes” resulting in permanent disenfranchisement (Griffin v. Pate, 2016). The ability of the governor to restore voting rights to persons convicted of infamous crimes through pardoning power was upheld in State v. Richardson, 2017. In 2005 Governor Tom Vilsack restored voting rights to individuals with former felony convictions via executive order. Governor Terry Branstad reversed this executive order in 2011.
Kentucky“Persons convicted of treason, or felony, or bribery in an election, or of such high misdemeanor as the General Assembly may declare shall operate as an exclusion from the right of suffrage, but persons hereby excluded may be restored to their civil rights by executive pardon” (KY Const. § 145). Governor Steve Beshear restored voting rights to individuals with former non-violent felony convictions via executive order in 2015. Governor Matt Bevin reversed this executive order shortly after taking office in 2015. The Department of Corrections is required to promulgate administrative regulations for restoration of civil rights to eligible felony offenders (KRS §196.045).
Mississippi“A person convicted of murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy is no longer considered a qualified elector” (Miss. Const. Art. 12, § 241). If an individual hasn’t committed one of these offenses, rights are automatically restored. If an individual has been convicted of one of these, he or she can still receive a pardon from the governor to restore voting rights (Miss. Code Ann. § 47-7-41) or by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the legislature (Miss. Const. Art. 12, § 253).
NebraskaIn felony cases, there is a two-year waiting period after completion of probation for the restoration of voting rights (Neb. Rev. St. § 29-2264).
NevadaFirst-time, non-violent offenders have rights restored upon completion of sentence. Those that have committed a violent crime or two or more felonies may petition a court to grant the restoration of civil rights (N.R.S. 213.157).
TennesseeThe Tennessee Constitution denies the right to vote persons convicted of an infamous crime (Tenn. Const. Art. 1, § 5). Any felony is considered an “infamous crime” and disqualifies a person from exercising the right of suffrage (T.C.A. § 40-20-112). Those convicted of infamous crimes may petition for restoration upon completion of the sentence or be pardoned by the governor (T.C.A. § 40-29-101, § 2-19-143). Proof of restoration is needed in order to register to vote (T.C.A. § 2-2-139).
VirginiaNo person who has been convicted of a felony shall be qualified to vote unless his civil rights have been restored by the Governor or other appropriate authority (VA Const. Art. 2, § 1). The Department of Corrections is required to provide persons convicted of felonies with information regarding voting rights restoration, and assist with the process established by the governor for the review of applications (VA Code Ann. § 53.1-231.1 et seq.). In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence and their term of supervised release (parole or probation) as of April 22, 2016. The Virginia Supreme Court subsequently ruled that rights restoration needs to take place on an individual basis, rather than en masse.
 WyomingA person convicted of a felony is not a qualified elector unless his rights are restored (W.S. § 6-10-106). For persons convicted of nonviolent felonies or a first-time offender, rights are restored automatically (W.S. § 7-13-105).   Persons who do not meet the above qualifications must be pardoned (W.S. § 6-10-106).

 

 

Recent State Action

In 2017, Alabama HB 282 provided a list of felonies that involve “moral turpitude” that disqualify a person from exercising his or her right to vote. Previously there was no comprehensive, authoritative source for defining a disenfranchising crime in Alabama.

In 2017, Wyoming enacted HB75 automatically restoring the rights of nonviolent felons.

In 2017, Louisiana enacted HB 168 improving reporting requirements between The Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Department of State.

In 2016, California passed legislation allowing those in county jails to vote while incarcerated, but not state or federal prison. In 2017 California passed additional legislation requiring information be provided about voting rights restoration on the internet and in person to felons exiting prison.

In 2016, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their prison sentence and their term of supervised release (parole or probation) as of April 22. This decision was a source of contention with the legislature. In July 2016, the Virginia Supreme Court overturned the order.

In 2016, Maryland’s legislature enacted HB 980 and SB 340 (overriding a veto) so that voting rights are automatically restored after completion of the term of incarceration.

In 2015, outgoing Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed an executive order to automatically restore the right to vote (and to hold public office) to certain offenders, excluding those who were convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery, or treason. The order was reversed by incoming Governor Matt Bevin.

In 2015, Wyoming enacted HB 15 requiring the department of corrections to issue a certification of restoration of voting rights to certain non-violent felons after completion of sentence.

In 2013, Delaware eliminated the five-year waiting period before voting rights are restored.

In 2013, Virginia Governor McDonnell signed an executive order creating new rights restoration processes for persons with prior felony convictions.

In 2012, South Dakota mandated that felons on probation would not have voting rights restored. Previously, only felons on parole or incarcerated had their voting rights suspended.

In 2011, the Florida Board of Executive Clemency (comprised of the governor and three cabinet members) reversed a 2007 policy change that automatically restored voting rights to non-violent offenders upon the completion of their sentence. The new policy requires that all ex-felons wait between five and seven years depending on the crime before applying to regain voting rights.

In Iowa, the governor in 2011 reversed an executive order issued in 2005 under the previous governor. The 2005 order automatically restored the voting rights of all ex-felons, but under the 2011 order they will now have to apply to regain rights.

In 2011 in Tennessee, HB 1117 was enacted, adding to the list of felons who are not eligible for automatic restoration.

In 2009, Washington restored the right to vote to felons who completed their sentences, while requiring them to re-register to vote.

Between 1996 and 2008, 28 states passed new laws on felon voting rights.

  • Seven repealed lifetime disenfranchisement laws, at least for some ex-offenders.
  • Two gave probationers the right to vote.
  • Seven improved data-sharing procedures among state agencies.
  • Nine passed requirements that ex-offenders be given information and/or assistance in regaining their voting rights at the time they complete their sentence.
  • Twelve simplified the process for regaining voting rights, for instance, by eliminating a waiting period or streamlining the paperwork process.

Additional Resources

For more detailed information on state legislation dealing with the voting rights of convicted felons, visit NCSL’s 2011-current Election Legislation Database and select the subtopic “Voters-Felon Voting Rights.” For legislation from the period 2001-2010, visit NCSL’s 2001-2010 Election Legislation Database.

  • If you’re seeking general information on state policies regarding felon voting rights, please contact NCSL’s elections team for more information by email or at 303-364-7700.
  • If you’re looking for information on how you or someone else can regain the right to vote, NCSL is unable to help with or offer advice on this process. We suggest that you contact election officials in the appropriate jurisdiction to get the most current and accurate information available.
  • The Sentencing Project is an advocacy group that offers information on felon disenfranchisement in the states. Its page Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer contains a state-by-state chronology of state action on felony disenfranchisement laws since 1997.
  • The Restoration of Rights Project, from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also provides assistance on felon disenfranchisement.
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