Although the Constitution is silent on whether people convicted of felonies should have their rights curtailed, most American states have chosen to restrict the franchise in modern times. Nearly 6 million people in 48 states—2.5 percent of the adult population—are currently ineligible to vote because of a prior conviction. Two-thirds of them have completed their prison terms, including two million people in 35 states who are prevented from voting while on probation or parole, and two million more in 12 states who continue to be disenfranchised once they have served out their sentence in full. In the four most restrictive states—Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, and Virginia—all citizens who are convicted of a felony permanently forfeit the right to vote, regardless of the offense. Ten states even disenfranchise citizens convicted of misdemeanors while they are serving time.
The rise in felon disenfranchisement across the United States closely tracks America’s War on Drugs and soaring prison population since the 1970s. There are 2.4 million Americans currently serving time behind bars in local, state, and federal institutions—one fourth of the total prison population worldwide and seven times more than in 1972. People convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs account for one-third of all convicted felons, the largest single group. Other common felonies include property, white-collar, and driving-related offenses. Murderers and rapists make up just four percent of people behind bars.
Felon disenfranchisement is not randomly distributed across the population. The large majority of past and present felons who have lost the right to vote were raised and continue to live in poverty. According to an Urban Institute study, nearly eight in 10 incarcerated fathers earned poverty-level incomes of less than $2,000 in the month prior to their incarceration, and 40 percent did not have a full-time job—six times the overall rate of poverty at the time. Education counts as well: High-school dropouts are 10 to 20 times more likely than their college-educated peers to spend time behind bars, a fact which sociologists ascribe to diminished job opportunities for people with limited education in the United States today.
In racial terms, the disparities are greater still. African Americans constitute around 38 percent of disenfranchised people—five times the rate among non-blacks—because of significantly higher rates of searching, sentencing, and detention by the police. More than one in seven black men is officially disenfranchised nationwide, with rates climbing as high as one in three in certain states. Some scholars assign the racial disparity in felon disenfranchisement to higher rates of criminal involvement among black men—a contested claim—while most agree that there is longstanding institutional bias within the criminal-justice system. Whatever the cause, the consequences for second-class citizens of color caught up in the criminal-justice system are severe.