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NAACP LDF - Free the Vote, the Sentencing Project, 2016

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Joe Loya, disenfranchised former prisoner





Sherrilyn A. Ifill, President and Director-Counsel
Janai S. Nelson, Associate Director-Counsel
National Headquarters
40 Rector Street, 5th Floor
New York, NY 10006
Fax 212.226.7592

Washington, DC Office
1444 Eye Street NW, 10th Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Fax 202.682.1312

Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation
Leah C. Aden, Senior Counsel
Deuel Ross, Assistant Counsel

Todd Cox, Director of Policy
Coty Montag, Deputy Director of Litigation
Monique Dixon, Deputy Policy Director
& Senior Counsel
Kyle C. Barry, Policy Counsel

For more than 75 years, LDF’s voting rights work has used legal, legislative, public education,
organizing, and advocacy strategies to promote the full, equal, and active participation of Black
people in America’s democracy.
For more information, visit us at
or email us at

Marc Mauer, Executive Director
1705 DeSales Street, NW, 8th Floor
Washington, DC 20036
Fax 202.628.1091
Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice
system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and
practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.
For more information, visit us at
or email us at


Unlocking Democracy in the Cells and on the Streets

The Next Phase of the Voting Rights Movement:
Freeing the Vote for People with Felony Convictions
Securing the right to vote for persons who have lost their voting rights as a result of a felony
conviction is the next phase of the voting rights movement. Nationwide, an estimated 6.1 million
Americans who have been convicted of a felony are denied access to the one fundamental right
that is the foundation of all others—the right to vote. Only Maine and Vermont do not restrict
voting on the basis of a felony conviction­­—and allow individuals to continue to exercise the right
to vote from prison by absentee ballot.
One in 13 Black Americans of voting age is disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, more
than four times the rate of non-Black Americans. Put another way, more than 7.4% of the Black
American adult population is disenfranchised compared to 1.8% of the non-Black population.
(There are currently no reliable data for Latino disenfranchisement due to a felony conviction.
This is largely a result of the limitations of court and corrections data on Latino individuals with
a criminal conviction, particularly in past decades.)

Felony disenfranchisement laws are a modern version
of historic voting barriers like Black Codes,
Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and poll taxes.

Electoral Exclusion: The Past and the Present
The racial disparities caused by felony disenfranchisement laws are not a coincidence. Many felony
disenfranchisement laws were revised in the years following the Civil War for the specific purpose
of limiting the political power of newly-freed Black people. Indeed, many state legislatures
tailored their felony disenfranchisement laws to require the loss of voting rights only for those
offenses disproportionately prosecuted against Black people, or thought to be committed most
frequently by Black people.
For example, guided by the belief that Black people were more likely to commit less serious
property offenses than the more “robust” crimes committed by white people, the 1890 Mississippi
constitutional convention required disenfranchisement for such crimes as theft or burglary,
but not for robbery or murder. Through the convoluted reasoning of this law, one would be
disenfranchised for stealing a chicken, but not for killing the chicken’s owner.
Many other states, from New York to Alabama, also have historically used felony
disenfranchisement laws to prevent Black people and other racial minorities from voting.

Modern Day Impact on Communities of Color
Felony disenfranchisement statutes have weakened the political power of Black and Latino
communities. This is largely the result of the historic growth in incarceration in recent decades
and disproportionate enforcement of the failed “war on drugs” in Black and Latino communities,

which has drastically increased the class of persons subject to disenfranchisement. Today, with 2.2
million Americans incarcerated, more than 800,000 of whom are Black Americans, the collateral
effects of our nation’s reliance on mass incarceration in the “war on drugs” era are more profound
than ever. Black Americans are 13% of the U.S. population, but are overrepresented in the prison
population at 36%. Thus, one in 13 Black persons of voting age is denied the right to vote.
The impact on Black voting strength at the state level is also devastating. In Florida, more people
are disenfranchised than in any other state, with Black disenfranchisement rates exceeding a
fifth (21%) of the adult Black voting age population. Similar rates can be seen in Kentucky,
Tennessee, and Virginia as well. In Alabama, 15% of the state’s Black voting age population has
been disqualified from voting as a result of a felony conviction. In New York, though Black and
Latino people collectively comprise about 30% of the State’s overall population, they represent
more than 70% of those denied the right to vote because of a felony conviction.

More than 2 million,
or 36% of the
disenfranchised, are
Black Americans.

Culture of Political Nonparticipation
Felony disenfranchisement laws discourage voters and future voters, especially children, from
exercising the learned behavior of voting. In so doing, these laws create a culture of political
nonparticipation that discourages civic engagement and marginalizes the voices of community
members who remain engaged, but who are deprived of the collective power of the votes of
disenfranchised relatives and neighbors.

Voices of Entire Communities Weakened
Felony disenfranchisement affects more than individual voters themselves—it diminishes
the voting strength of entire communities of color, which are too often already plagued with
concentrated poverty, substandard housing, limited access to healthcare services, failing public
schools, and environmental hazards. As a result, people in these communities have even less of an
opportunity to effect much-needed positive change through the political process.


Prison-Based Gerrymandering
In addition to disenfranchising those with felony convictions, many states and localities count
incarcerated people as residents of the prisons in which they are housed, which are often in rural
areas, rather than in their permanent, pre-incarceration communities, which are often in urban
areas. The practice is known as “prison-based gerrymandering.”
Prison-based gerrymandering compounds the harmful effects of felony disenfranchisement by
artificially inflating population numbers in the rural towns, villages, and counties where many
prisons are located. The racial disparities in incarceration then result in greater political influence
and increased economic resources for the largely white rural areas, and a corresponding loss of
resources to the urban communities from which prisoners of color usually belong.
Moreover, prison-based gerrymandering violates the basic principle of “one person, one vote.”
One person, one vote requires election districts to hold roughly the same number of constituents
so that everyone is represented equally in the political process and each constituent has the same
level of access to an elected official.
For example, in the city of Anamosa, Iowa, a councilman from a prison community was elected
to office from a ward which, according to the Census, had almost 1,400 residents — about the
same as the other three wards in town. But 1,300 of these “residents” were actually prisoners in
the Anamosa State Penitentiary. Once those prisoners were subtracted, the ward had fewer than
60 actual residents.
Fortunately, New York, Maryland, California, and Delaware, and hundreds of counties have
passed laws to end prison-based gerrymandering.
To learn more about this discriminatory and anti-democratic practice, visit: http://www.naacpldf.

New Frontiers for the Expansion of Voting Rights
Today, there are new frontiers for the expansion of voting rights, and old battles that remain unfinished.
Regrettably, more than 150 years after emancipation, and more than 50 years after the passage of the
Voting Rights Act of 1965, increasing numbers of Black and Latino people nationwide are actually
losing their right to vote each day, rather than experiencing greater access to political participation.


Fortunately, new efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement policies in states like Maryland, Virginia,
and California suggest that many federal and state lawmakers from across the political spectrum are
beginning to recognize the origins of these laws and to understand that felony disenfranchisement
is not only discriminatory in its application, but also undermines the most fundamental aspect of
American citizenship: the right to participate in the political process.
For those reasons, however, reform efforts simply are insufficient. LDF and The Sentencing Project are
working to eradicate felony disenfranchisement laws entirely so that there are no restrictions on voting
rights because of a felony conviction, even while incarcerated, such as in Maine and Vermont, states
that are overwhelmingly populated by white residents.
Indeed, LDF and The Sentencing Project are leading voices in engaging the public and changing the
way that Americans think about crime and punishment and its collateral consequences like felony
disenfranchisement. LDF has challenged discriminatory felony disenfranchisement laws in state and
federal courts across the nation, having litigated cases in New York (Hayden v. Paterson), Washington
State (Farrakhan v. Gregoire), and Alabama (Chapman v. Gooden and Glasgow v. Allen), and supported
other cases and advocacy in states with some of the most restrictive disenfranchisement laws like
Iowa (Griffin v. Pate), Florida, Kentucky, and California. The Sentencing Project has published
groundbreaking research on the history of felony disenfranchisement and its modern day impact,
showing that more than six million Americans cannot vote because of felony convictions. The
organization has also documented the policies and practices that have made the U.S. the world leader
in incarceration and produced the racial disparities that pervade the criminal justice system. Through
these and other advocacy efforts, LDF and The Sentencing Project together aim to erase these racially
discriminatory laws from the books—but we need your help.

What Can You Do?
Together, we can empower ourselves, enhance our collective voting strength, and improve the
conditions of our communities by freeing the vote for people with felony convictions.
•	 Educate Yourself: Find out what the felony disenfranchisement policy is in your state and what
efforts are underway to change that policy. Your state may permanently bar people with felony
convictions from voting, may restore voting rights to people with felony convictions following
release, parole, and/or probation, or may not bar people with felony convictions from voting at all.
•	 Educate Others: Tell others in your community about the discriminatory impact of these laws.
Let them know how imperative each and every vote is to effectuating change in your community,
and ultimately, in your city, state, and country.
•	 Volunteer: If you live in a state where voting rights for people with felony convictions can be
restored, there may be local or community organizations that can help guide them through
the restoration process, as well as assist with voter registration. There also may be community
organizations in your area that: advocate for changes to and/or the eradication of felony
disenfranchisement laws; work to educate people with felony convictions about their voting
rights; and/or assist people in pre-trial detention who have not been convicted of a felony with
voter registration and/or absentee voting. Sign up to volunteer for one of these organizations.
•	 Take Action: Contact your state and federal representatives and let them know that you believe
that these laws are anti-democratic, discriminatory, and should be swept into the dustbin of
history, along with Jim Crow laws, literacy tests, and poll taxes.


The Fight For Voting Rights Continues.