In Wisconsin, over 68,000 people couldn’t vote this year because of their conviction status, a practice called felony voter disenfranchisement.

State law prohibits incarcerated people and those released on community supervision from voting. About 45,000 of those impacted aren’t locked up but are under community supervision. Advocates for change say the law disproportionately impacts Black people and leads them back to prison. Opponents say the laws deter crime and keep the public safe, but the data doesn’t prove that out.

The United States is far from united on whether felons should vote, but a number of states have eased their restrictions.

In a three-part series, we take an in-depth look at felony voter disenfranchisement: how people experience it, how the policy evolved and how a number of states have changed their laws.

Most felons in Wisconsin can’t vote, here’s why
How voting, crime and race became entwined
Unlocking the vote, how other states have eased their felony voting laws

Felony voting by the numbers

6.1 million
People with felony convictions were impacted by voter disenfranchisement laws in the United States in 2016

5.2 million
People with felony convictions were impacted by voter disenfranchisement laws in the United States in 2020

23
States have changed their laws since 2005

SOURCE: The Sentencing Project

Locked out

Individuals who have completed their sentences in the eleven states that disenfranchise at least some people post-sentence make up most (43 percent) of the entire disenfranchised population, totaling 2.23 million people.

One out of 44 adults – 2.27 percent of the total U.S. voting-eligible population–is disenfranchised due to a current or previous felony conviction.

One in 16 African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.7 times greater than that of non-African Americans. Over 6.2 percent of the adult African American population is disenfranchised compared to 1.7 percent of the non-African American population.

Governors in Iowa (2020) and Kentucky (2019) issued executive orders restoring civil rights to people who had completed their sentences, and the New York governor (2018) restored voting rights to people on parole. 

SOURCE: The Sentencing Project

“Citizenship is of birthright or of choice in our form of government, and the ballot is one of the rights admitted, ay, conceded, cannot be conferred. Who gave any class the right to monopolize the elective franchise? If a majority, however large, can strike down one right to monopolize the elective franchise? If a majority, however large, can strike down one right not forfeited then they can another, and hence, as I have said, all. So that if you admit the doctrine of legal disenfranchisement, you cannot stop short of admitting that the power exists to strike down all rights.”

Sen. Samuel C. Pomeroy (Kansas, 1861-1873)

Images by April Harris

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Denise Lockwood has an extensive background in traditional and non-traditional media. She has written for Patch.com, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine and the Kenosha News.

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