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More people with felony convictions can vote, but roadblocks remain

By Lindsey Van Ness, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON - More than ever, Eric Harris is mindful of the elected officials around him: The school board members deciding whether his children will go back to the classroom, the sheriff influencing how officers interact with people like him, and the U.S. president steering the country's coronavirus response.

This year has given Harris lots of reasons to vote. And this year, he can.

With three felonies on his record, the 41-year-old had been barred from voting in Iowa - the last state that had permanently banned people convicted of felonies from voting without the governor's approval - until an executive order from Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds in early August changed that. "It means a lot to me," Harris said.

In every state except Maine and Vermont, people convicted of felonies are stripped of their voting rights while in prison. In most states, that ban extends to those on probation or parole, while some states have additional time and fee requirements, disenfranchising millions of people.

Reynolds restored automatic voting rights to most people with felony records after they complete their sentence, including parole or probation; the exceptions are people with homicide convictions, who must file an application. Under the order, an estimated 60,000 additional people now are eligible to vote in the Hawkeye State.

They join the ranks of hundreds of thousands of others with felony convictions who are newly eligible to vote in the general election this year. Since the 2016 election, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, New York and Virginia also have implemented or expanded voting rights for some people convicted of felonies.


The political stakes are up for debate. Roughly 630,000 people with felony convictions can vote this year in Florida, nearly six times the 113,000 vote-margin by which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the state. But research has shown that like other voters, people convicted of felonies who are registered don't necessarily vote.

Still, groups ranging from liberal political organizations to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters are working furiously to find these newly eligible voters as registration deadlines approach. But the pandemic is complicating in-person registration drives, as are the uncertainties around mail-in voting. And eight states explicitly require people with felony records to pay some form of court costs and fees before registering.

In 2016, an estimated 6.1 million people, or 1 in 40 adults, were unable to vote because of a felony conviction, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy organization. The project found that Black people were the most likely to be disenfranchised: More than 7% of the adult African American population, or 1 in 13 people, could not vote because of a felony conviction.

"The burden of disenfranchisement falls on poor folks and people of color. All of that skews our democracy," said Blair Bowie, who leads the Restore Your Vote project at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for voting rights. "You're cutting out voices that are important. That makes it harder for our government to reflect the will of the people."


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