In the next week, Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected to sign H.B. 1078/S.B. 5086 into law. This bill restores the right to vote to tens of thousands of Washingtonians with past felony convictions once they return home from prison.
Once it becomes law, more than 20,000 people who are on community supervision in the state will have their stake in our democracy restored. These are Washingtonians raising families, holding jobs, paying taxes, and contributing to their communities in every way. But before the passage of this bill, they were still being punished by being denied the freedom to vote.
Washington isn’t the only state considering taking action on voting restoration this session. We’re currently tracking 142 bills in 26 states that affect a person’s ability to vote following a felony conviction.*
In a year where the attacks on our freedom to vote seem endless, this is one trend in voting rights that is headed in the right direction. Only six of the 138 voting restoration bills are anti-voter, and not one of those anti-voter bills has moved past introduction to date.
Many states are looking to follow in Washington State’s footsteps by restoring voting eligibility to people who have completed their prison sentence. In the past few years, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky, New Jersey, Iowa, California, and Washington, D.C. have expanded access to the ballot for people with past convictions.
This year’s legislative session is no exception. For example, Virginia — one of only three states in the country that permanently bars people with past felony convictions from voting — adopted two resolutions this session that propose to amend the state constitution to ensure that people convicted of felonies can vote as long as they aren’t in prison. If approved by the legislature again next year, Virginia voters will then have an opportunity to vote on the matter.
Alabama is another of the three states with a permanent ban on voting for people with felony convictions. A bill recently passed the state Senate that would restore voting eligibility for people returning home from prison, or those who complete community supervision if they are not sentenced to prison time, after one year of compliance with a payment plan for any associated fines and fees.
In Iowa, a voting restoration resolution just passed the state House unanimously. It proposes to amend the Iowa constitution to ensure that a person’s voting rights are restored when they complete their felony sentence.
New Mexico and New York both have legislation that passed the first chamber that would allow people to vote as long as they are not currently incarcerated for a felony conviction. A Connecticut bill that does the same is likely to pass out of committee this week. Under existing law in all three states, voting rights are not restored until after community supervision.
Of course, not all efforts will be successful. In Mississippi — the third state that permanently bars people with past felony convictions from voting — legislators have filed 21 pro-voter voting restoration bills. Every single one has failed.
But the overwhelming trend has been in favor of voting restoration.
These proposals have enormous consequences, particularly for Black and brown communities. Six percent of the voting age population in Virginia currently cannot vote due to a felony conviction in the state. In Mississippi, more than 10% of the voting age population does not have the freedom to vote.
There are persistent and systemic racial inequalities in our criminal legal system. In all three states that permanently bar people with past felony convictions from voting, more than 1 in 7 otherwise eligible Black voters are banned. That’s a rate about 6.5 times higher than the national disenfranchisement rate, which means that these states disproportionately lock people of color out of the voting booth.
We won’t ever have an elected government that represents all of us when some members of our community are being excluded from our elections and denied the ability to participate in our democracy. What’s more, promoting civic engagement not only makes our democracy stronger; it also makes it safer.
When people feel that they are valued members of their community, and that their voices matter and concerns are addressed, they are less likely to re-engage in criminal activity. In fact, a study by the Florida Parole Commission found that people with felony convictions whose voting eligibility was restored were three times less likely to commit new crimes. That’s why bipartisan support is building national momentum to restore voting rights to people with past convictions.
For a national landscape of state law on voting rights restoration, check out the Voting Restoration page on our State Voting Rights Tracker. And if you want a tutorial on how to use our Comprehensive Bill Search to explore this and other trends in voting legislation, just reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*As of publishing date.