Disrupting Democracy: Felony Disenfranchisement Laws and the “Smart on Crime” Era

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A few days ago, I read a shocking headline that stated “Kentucky’s Incarceration Rate Ranks 7th in the World” (Lopez, 2015). According to the article, Kentucky’s incarceration rate beats out Russia, Thailand, Panama and El Salvador. This new ranking follows the past few years of accolades given to the state for its correctional reform efforts. In 2011, Kentucky passed a law that overhauled the state’s correctional system. The reforms were lauded as groundbreaking and the state was heralded as a national example of the bi-partisan “Smart on Crime” movement. While it is popularly used as the “poster child” example, the new policies fail to address one of the oldest reentry issues across the land – felony disenfranchisement.

Arguably, nothing disrupts a sense of democracy like the centuries old practice of barring the vote of convicted felons. Currently, there are approximately 5.85 million Americans disenfranchised due to felony convictions (The Sentencing Project, 2015). A majority of those disenfranchised are not incarcerated and are either under some type of community supervision (i.e. probation or parole) or have completed their sentence. Four states have lifetime disenfranchisement policies. In three of those states – Kentucky, Florida and Virginia – more than one in five African-Americans can not vote due to a felony convictions.

Several years ago, in my home state, I realized the “Smart on Crime” shift was potentially occurring with this issue when U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky), a Tea Party Republican, openly supported the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. In Kentucky, we have been waging a decade long fight with Republicans in the statehouse regarding an automatic restoration of voting rights bill that fails to pass every year. Kentucky’s lifetime voting ban has been embedded in the state constitution since 1798 and requires an executive pardon in order for an ex-offender to regain his/her voting rights. There are approximately 243, 842 ex-felons that cannot vote in Kentucky (The Sentencing Project, 2012). For one of our Republican U.S. Senators to come forward and oppose the view of his state level counterparts was nothing short of amazing. In an effort to encourage KY legislators to pass the voting rights bill, Senator Paul wrote: “Restoring voting rights for those who have repaid their debt to society is simply the right thing to do” (Brodey, 2015).

The U.S. felony disenfranchisement rate has reached unprecedented levels. It seems logical to include the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons in conversations about criminal justice reform. While other collateral consequences are making successful strides across the country, felon disenfranchisement laws remain largely unchanged, especially in permanently disenfranchising states. Research shows that the majority of U.S. citizens support ex-felon voting rights (Dawson-Edwards, 2008; Manza, Brooks & Uggen, 2004). Other studies report that political participation is positively related to successful offender reentry (Uggen & Manza, 2004).

The legislative histories of permanently disenfranchising states provide anecdotal evidence that more conservative legislators are the ones voting against felon voting rights. In addition, several studies show that disenfranchised felons could have dramatically impacted state and federal level elections and they have a tendency to lean Democratic (Uggen & Manza, 2002; Manza & Uggen, 2004; Vito, Shutt & Tewksbury, 2008).

The recent shift to a “Smart on Crime” movement across the country is promising. With both sides of the political spectrum seemingly on board, perhaps progress towards true criminal justice reform is imminent. Politicians and the public are finally recognizing that the collateral consequences of conviction not only extend far beyond the felon’s sentence but also have a lasting impact on communities and society in general. However, if Kentucky is a “textbook example of genuine bi-partisanship” in criminal justice reform, then there is a grim outlook for changing U.S. felony disenfranchisement laws in the near future (Ellis, 2011).

Cherie Dawson-Edwards, Ph.D.
Department of Criminal Justice
University of Louisville


Brodey, S. (2015, Jan. 14). Kentucky makes it almost impossible for felons to vote. Rand Paul wants to change that. Mother Jones. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/01/rand-paul-kentucky-felon-voting

Dawson-Edwards, C. (2008). Enfranchising convicted felons: Current research on opinions towards felon voting rights. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 46 (3/4). [Reprinted in D. Phillips, Ed., Probation and parole: Current issues. New York: Routledge, 2008].

Ellis, R. (2011, April, 17). How a tough on crime state became smart on crime. The Crime Report. http://www.thecrimereport.org/news/inside-criminal-justice/2011-04-how-a-tough-on-crime-state-became-smart-on-crime.

Lopez, A. (2015, ). Kentucky’s Incarceration Rate Ranks 7th in the World. http://wfpl.org/if-it-were-a-country-kentuckys-prison-rate-would-rank-7th-in-the-world/

Prison Policy Initiative. (2015). States of Incarceration: The Global Context.http://www.prisonpolicy.org/global/

The Sentencing Project. (2012). State Level Estimates of Felon Disenfranchisement in the U.S. http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_State_Level_Estimates_of_Felon_Disen_2010.pdf.

The Sentencing Project. (2015). Policy Brief: Felony Disenfranchisement.http://sentencingproject.org/doc/publications/fd_Felony%20Disenfranchisement%20Primer.pdf.

Uggen, C., & Manza, J. (2002). Lost Voices: The Civic and Political Views of Disenfranchised Felons. P. 165-204. In D.M. Dattilo, D. Weiman, & Western, B. (Eds.), Imprisoning America: The Social Effects of Mass Incarceration. New York: Russell Sage Foundation

Vito, G.F., Shutt, J.E., Tewksbury, R. (2009). Estimating the Impact of Kentucky’s Felon Disenfranchisement Policy on 2008 Presidential and Senatorial Elections. Federal Probation, 73(1).

1 Comment

  1. Today, outgoing Governor Beshear issued an Executuve Order that could restore the voting rights of an estimated 180k ex-offenders!! A game changer in KY…but the legislative branch still needs to do its part to let the citizens of KY vote on a ballot initiative to amend the KY Constitution.

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