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Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (Book Review)

Review by Alex Friedmann

"The expansion of suffrage toall sectors of the population is one of the United States' most important political triumphs .... Today, all mentally competent adults have the right to vote with only one exception: convicted criminal offenders." So begins Losing the Vote, a collaborative report by The Sentencing Project and Human Rights Watch released in October, 1998.

Thirty-two states prohibit ex- offenders on parole from voting; 29 deny the ballot to probationers and 14 permanently disenfranchise convicted felons. Only three states permit incarcerated felons to participate in elections: Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont [Utah voters revoked prisoners' state constitutional right to vote in a Nov. 3, 1998, referendum; prisoners' voting rights in Massachusetts are presently under attack (See: PLN, Dec. 1997).]

An estimated 3.9 million U.S. citizens (about 2% of the adult population) are currently or permanently disenfranchised due to felony convictions. The right to vote can be revoked for relatively minor offenses such as marijuana possession or theft; persons who plea bargain for suspended sentences may unknowingly forfeit their voting rights.

Disenfranchisement and the concept of "civil death" descended from medieval European law. Such laws were incorporated into U.S. law after independence from England but remained little used until after the Civil War when disenfranchisement was used by Southern states to deny the vote to emancipated slaves.

The racial impact -- if not intent of criminal disenfranchisement laws is readily apparent today. An estimated 13 percent of adult black males have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions, a rate nearly seven times the national average. In Alabama and Florida almost one-third of all black adult males have been permanently disenfranchised.

Losing the Vote examines the constitutionality of disenfranchisement, analyzes criminal disenfranchisement in relation to international human rights laws, and discusses the future impact of high incarceration rates on voting rights. The extensive footnotes include relevant case citations. And there is complete state-by-state data on the number of disenfranchised as well as details about each state's peculiar statutory (or constitutional) scheme for denying felons the vote.

The report sets forth a compelling argument against disenfranchisement noting that deprivation of the right to vote is not a necessary aspect of criminal punishment and that it impedes the reintegration of felons into society after their release.

Losing the Vote will be useful to anyone challenging felon disenfranchisement laws under the Voting Rights Act [See: "Giving Cons and Ex-Cons the Vote," PLN, May, 1994].

The full 26-page report is available on-line at or PLN readers may obtain a free copy by written request to:

The Sentencing Project
918 F Street NW, Suite 501
Washington, DC 20004


Christina Portillo
Program Associate
Human Rights Watch
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor
New York, NY 10118

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