Regaining the Right to Vote Following a Criminal Conviction

In many states, a criminal conviction places restrictions on a person’s voting rights, at least temporarily. While laws differ from state to state as to the nature of voting restrictions, the length of voting restrictions, and the types of crimes that trigger voting restrictions, many state laws provide procedures for the reinstatement of voting rights following a criminal conviction. 

Restrictions on Voting Rights

Many states prohibit persons who are currently serving sentences resulting from certain criminal convictions from voting. In some states, only convicted felons are prohibited from voting while incarcerated, whereas in other states, persons convicted of other crimes are prohibited from voting, as well. Even when released from incarceration, some persons convicted of certain crimes still cannot vote until they have completed their terms of probation, parole, or another type of supervised release. Plus, in many states, persons who are awaiting trial or who have not yet been convicted of a crime with which they have been charged still retain voting rights, even if they are incarcerated.

No Federal Standard on Restoring Voting Rights

It may seem odd, but the ability to vote in both state and federal elections is determined by each state, not the federal government. There have been bills introduced in Congress that would "standardize rules in federal elections and ensure voting fairness," according to the Sentencing Project. But as of 2015, felony disenfranchisement is regulated by each state. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed this in the 1974 case Richardson v. Ramirez, holding that it did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to keep felons from voting even after they've completed their sentences.

Automatic Restoration of Voting Rights

In a fair number of states, persons whose voting rights have been restricted due to a criminal conviction automatically regain the right to vote, usually following the completion of their sentences, which usually include their terms of incarceration, and may include their terms of probation and/or parole. For instance, in the state of Arizona, first-time offenders automatically regain their right to vote once they have served their sentences. 
 
Likewise, in the state of Florida, persons who have been convicted of some crimes, excluding certain sexual and violent offenses, have their voting rights automatically restored following any period of incarceration and/or supervised release. Persons meeting the eligibility requirements for automatic reinstatement of voting rights in states such as these do not need to take any further action to obtain the right to vote, other than changing addresses with the appropriate elections office as needed. 

Applying for Restoration of Voting Rights

Several state laws refer to the restoration of civil rights as determinative of one’s right to vote following a criminal conviction. Some persons must go through an application process before the appropriate body, which may include a local registrar, a parole board, a clemency board, or the state governor, in order to have civil rights, including voting rights, restored. These procedures vary widely from one state to another, and may depend on a number of factors, such as the type of crime involved, the establishment of a place of residence, payments of fines and/or restitution relating to the criminal conviction, and even the status of a person’s current child support payments. Some state laws regarding the restoration of voting rights also differ according to the date of a person’s criminal conviction.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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