Not being able to vote as a convicted felon may seem harsh, but the practice of disenfranchisement varies widely, depending on where you live.
Each state has the power to regulate the ability of convicted felons to vote, and they don't all agree on whether (or even how long) a felon should lose the right to vote.
So when and where do convicted felons have voting rights?
No Federal Standard; States Decide
Strange as it may sound, the ability to vote in both state and federal elections is determined by each state, not the federal government. According to the Sentencing Project, there have been bills introduced in Congress that would "standardize rules in federal elections and ensure voting fairness." But for now, felony disenfranchisement is regulated by each state.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in a 1974 case, Richardson v. Ramirez, determining that it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to keep felons from voting even after they've completed their sentences.
No Disenfranchisement: Maine and Vt.
Although they're the minority, Maine and Vermont do not strip felons of any right to vote, even while incarcerated. In Maine, those incarcerated may apply to register to vote "in any municipality" where that person has previously resided. Unfortunately, that means out-of-staters who are incarcerated in Maine may not be able to register to vote in Maine.
Permanent Loss of Right to Vote: Fla., Iowa, Ky., and Va.
In four states, a felon may permanently lose the right to vote, regardless of whether a sentence is served or parole is finished. In Florida, for example, the only way to restore the right to vote is by petitioning the governor for clemency. This harsh policy was originally the status quo in many states, giving many the impression that felons in general can never vote after a conviction.
Partly, Potentially, or Fully Restored After Completion of Sentence: 44 States and D.C.
The majority of states have chosen to restore the right to vote to convicted felons after the successful completion of their sentences -- which may also include probation or parole.
For example, in Arizona, a felon can petition to have his or her civil rights (including the right to vote) restored two years after the completion of his or her sentence. However, this restoration may be at the discretion of the sentencing judge.
In some states, the restoration of voting rights is automatic upon the completion of a sentence, while in others, felons must re-register in order to vote. Re-registration may require a proof of discharge or letter from parole or probation officer.
If you're facing a felony offense and are concerned about your right to vote, you may want to bring this up with your criminal defense attorney.
- Felon Voting Rights (National Conference of State Legislatures)
- VA Gov. Pledges Faster Felon Voting Rights (FindLaw's Blotter)
- Virginia Ex-Felons: Write an Essay, Get a Vote (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life)
- Search FindLaw.com's Lawyer Directory for an attorney who's right for you (FindLaw)