When a US federal appeals court issued an opinion last month striking down Mississippi’s practice of revoking voting rights for life from people convicted of certain felonies, the state lost its designation as the most difficult for people with felony convictions to restore their right to vote.
The fifth circuit court of appeals panel found that the state’s felony disenfranchisement policy violated the constitution’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling followed a pattern of states in recent years moving away from their Jim Crow-era policies – an estimated 4.6 million Americans were barred from participating in elections as of October 2022, a number that’s down 24% since 2016, according to the Sentencing Project.
But ahead of the 2024 presidential election, several states still make it incredibly difficult, if not virtually impossible, for people leaving prison to regain the right to vote. Virginia, Tennessee, Iowa and Kentucky still have policies that result in at least some US citizens being effectively shut out of democracy for life. Several other states, including Florida, Alabama and Arizona, predicate voting on having enough money to pay off court fines and fees – another barrier that makes it nearly impossible for low-income Americans to regain the right to vote.
And though the ruling in Mississippi was a victory for people with felony convictions there, voting rights experts say it is unlikely to hold and expect it to be overturned on appeal.
“We started this year with significant expansions to the franchise in Minnesota and New Mexico, but yes, there are states that I think are working actively to make it more challenging for all their residents to vote,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project. “We do have backsliding in 2023 ahead of a major election.”
The effects of these laws are not only felt on those who are ineligible. Because of the confusing nature of these restrictions and the current “era of criminalization of voting” with several recent high-profile arrests of people who prosecutors said were ineligible to vote, voters with criminal records might be intimidated and choose not to participate in an election, she said.
Here are the states that still make it impossible, or nearly impossible, for at least some people with felony convictions to cast a ballot:
Virginia’s constitution still prohibits people with felony convictions from voting unless they specifically petition the governor, but in 2021, the Democratic governor Ralph Northam signed an executive order automatically restoring voting rights to roughly 69,000 people with felony convictions upon release from prison. The order also applied to all people who are released from prison going forward.
While voting rights advocates heralded the order as a win, it did not change the state constitution and kept rights restoration up to the whim of each governor. Earlier this year, the Republican governor Glenn Youngkin, who assumed the office in 2022, said he had rescinded Northam’s policy of automatically restoring voting rights to residents who have completed felony sentences. Though the change does not affect anyone who already had their rights restored under Northam, it left people leaving prison with little option for regaining their civil rights.
Youngkin’s reversal makes Virginia the only state in the US that currently disenfranchises everyone with a felony conviction.
Tennessee denies the right to vote to people convicted of certain “infamous” crimes, a policy that shuts roughly 470,000 citizens, or 9.3% of the adult population, out of the democratic process. The state has the highest rate of disenfranchisement for both Black and Latino Americans.
In addition to prohibiting people on probation and parole from voting, Tennessee also requires that citizens pay off all restitution, court costs and child support before regaining the right to vote, a policy that voting advocates equate to a modern day poll tax. Until recently, after repayment, citizens had to get government officials to sign off on a form – a certificate of restoration.
Tennessee’s policy was already exceedingly difficult, but then in July, the state’s division of elections quietly rolled out a new policy requiring that someone seeking to regain their voting rights to first successfully receive a pardon from the governor or have a court restore their full rights of citizenship.
“It’s just a real scale-back of eligibility practices that are certainly going to make it harder for people and confuse people,” Porter said.
In Iowa, like Virginia, the state constitution still prohibits people who have committed felonies from voting, and until recently, the state was the last in the nation that still banned all people with felony convictions from voting. But in 2020, the Republican governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order restoring voting rights to all people who have completed their sentences except for those convicted of homicide. Reynolds’s term is up at the end of 2026 and the next governor could make rights restoration more difficult again, like Youngkin in Virginia.
Like Iowa and Virginia, Kentucky’s policy is up to the governor. In 2019, Governor Andy Beshear issued an executive order restoring voting rights to those who had completed sentences for just non-violent offenses, but he left out those convicted of violent crimes. Beshear is also up for re-election this November, and voting rights advocates are anxious that if the Republican candidate Daniel Cameron is elected, he could reverse Beshear’s order as the last Republican governor did after taking over from a Democrat.
Florida made national headlines in 2018 when voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most people with felony convictions upon their release from prison. But amendment 4, as it was known, did not apply to people convicted of murder or felony sexual assault, and the Republican-controlled legislature later passed a bill requiring the payment of fines and fees before an individual with a felony sentence can vote. Despite the passage of amendment 4, people convicted of certain offenses like murder or people who cannot afford to pay off large sums of court fines are left disenfranchised.
Other states have lifetime disenfranchisement policies for some offenses, but not all. Arizona, for example, requires the payment of restitution to file for restoration of rights after a first felony offense. In Alabama, certain crimes of “moral turpitude” – a confusing term defined by the state constitution and amended in 2017 – remain ineligible for restoration. After a first felony, citizens are also required to pay off fines, fees, court costs and victim restitution. And in Delaware, certain offenses are disqualified from rights restoration, like murder, bribery and sexual offenses.
The patchwork of state laws is often confusing and hard to navigate for voters, but efforts to restore voting rights on the national level have not been successful. As originally written, the For the People Act of 2021 would have restored voting rights to people with felony convictions who are back in their communities for federal elections and would have made policies uniform across the country, but Senate Republicans blocked the sweeping voting rights bill and it did not become law.