Voting Rights: How Felony Convictions Affect Your Ability to Participate in Elections
Many people mistakenly believe that ex-offenders are not allowed to ever vote again; that their right to vote has been permanently taken away because of their conviction. However, this is not the case. Many states automatically restore voting rights upon completion of your sentence – including Connecticut.
Voting is a constitutional right, and it’s your civic duty to play an integral role in the democratic process. It’s one of the highest forms of citizenship. Cynicism aside, voting is the participation in the election of officials who shape laws and policies that directly affect the world in which you live. It’s the expression of your values, and how you believe government should (or should not) have a role in people’s lives. In the ever-evolving and perpetual battle to eliminate institutional and social barriers to give all people the opportunity to pursue happiness, your vote is a form of advocacy. This is why your participation is important – because your voice matters.
However, upon a conviction of a criminal offense, the right to vote can be taken away – the idea for which has existed since ancient Greece and Rome, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (“NCSL”). Typically, taking away a person’s right to vote is usually restricted to felony offenses – although some states extend this restriction even to misdemeanors and other offenses. In ancient Europe, losing one’s voting rights was part of what was known as "civil death", which also consisted of losing one’s property, the right to appear in court, and the right to enter into contracts. This was brought to America by English colonists. But most aspects of it were eventually discarded except for “felon disenfranchisement”, which still exists in America, although progress has been made.
The right to vote has evolved through a painstaking process throughout U.S. history. At one time, the right to vote was reserved only to white men whom owned land. Through several highly contentious and controversial amendments to the U.S. Constitution over the past 150 years, this right has slowly expanded.
These amendments include:
1870: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
1920: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
1964: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay poll tax or other tax.”
1971: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
In other words, the U.S. Constitution currently states that the right to vote is not to be denied on the basis of race, color, previous condition of servitude, sex, failure to pay poll tax or other taxes, and age (upon turning 18). These amendments gave Congress the power to make laws through the legislature to enforce these rights. However, voting rights are predominantly determined at the state level, regardless of whether you’re voting in a federal or state election. In many states, once a person leaves jail/prison and/or completes the conditions set in their parole or probation, their voting rights are automatically restored without them having to do anything else. A minority of states permanently disenfranchise people with a past felony conviction or require they petition the government to have their right restored.
State approaches to felon disenfranchisement significantly vary. For example, according to the NCSL, in Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated. In Florida, Iowa and Virginia, felons permanently lose their right to vote. Virginia and Florida have supplementary programs which facilitate gubernatorial pardons. The remaining states each have their own approaches to the issue.
- In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most felons automatically gain the right to vote upon the completion of their sentence.
- In some states, felons must wait for a certain period of time after the completion of their sentence before rights can be restored.
- In some states, a felon must apply to have voting rights restored.
In Connecticut, individuals convicted of a felony are ineligible to vote while incarcerated or on parole. However, voting rights are automatically restored upon release from incarceration and completion of the supervised release period (if applicable). Also, anyone who has been convicted of a felony after January 1, 2002 and has been sentenced to just probation, rather than sentenced to confinement in an institution, is eligible to vote. If you are an ex-offender that meets this criteria, all you need to do is re-register to vote to participate in future elections. To apply for voter registration, you must visit the Registrar of Voters of the city or town in which you reside. Upon submitting satisfactory proof of his/her qualifications, your right to vote will be restored. If the city or town in which you resides is different than the city/town that you had resided in at the time of your felony conviction, the latter town will be notified that your voting rights have been restored.
To register online, visit CT’s Online Voter Registration System. You must have a valid CT driver's license, permit, or photo ID card, and a signature on file with the DMV. Complete all the required fields as you go through the application.
For more information on voting laws by state, visit felonvoting.procon.org.