As the Republican National Convention comes to a close and the Democrats gear up for next week, there is one looming question about the focus each party will place on voting rights—an issue that was not front and center during the presidential debates but should be at the forefront of national discussion as we approach the general election. If and when they do turn to voting rights, there is much to address—most especially concerning the restoration of voting rights for returning citizens. Our democracy is strengthened when as many eligible citizens as possible are able to freely participate in elections. However, in 2016, many states are holding firm to laws that deny Americans the right to vote because of a prior criminal conviction from their past. So-called “felony disenfranchisement” laws hurt people with criminal histories and their home communities. Publicly available data demonstrates that an estimated 5.85 million Americans are currently disenfranchised as a result of these arcane laws.
The racially disproportionate impact that disenfranchisement laws have on African Americans and other minority groups is undeniable. For example, African-Americans are disenfranchised due to felony convictions more than three times the rate of non-blacks. Across the country, 13 percent of African-American men have lost their right to vote because of laws that strip the right to vote from people with convictions.
In addition, these laws disproportionately impact low-income citizens, particularly in states where rights restoration is contingent upon payment of all fines and fees related to a conviction. Finally, by sustaining laws that deny people an opportunity to re-engage in the civic life of their communities, states encourage recidivism and undermine reentry efforts that might otherwise prove successful.