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How Americans — And Democratic Candidates — Feel About Letting Felons Vote

Last month, during a CNN town hall featuring several Democratic candidates, Sen. Bernie Sanders helped reignite a national conversation when he said people in prison should have the right to vote. It’s a controversial question, even within the Democratic Party. At the same town hall, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said that he does not support extending voting rights to the incarcerated, drawing applause from the largely Democratic audience.

From ABC News:

Pete Buttigieg defends stance on not allowing felons to vote from prison

Despite the issue’s recent rise to prominence, the question of whether and when felons should be allowed to vote has been percolating at the state level for a while now, as it overlaps with a broader progressive voting-rights agenda, criminal justice reform efforts, and pushes for racial equality (felon disenfranchisement disproportionately affects black Americans). A handful of states have recently restored certain felons’ right to vote, most notably Florida, where the passage of Amendment 4 in the 2018 midterm elections restored voting rights to an estimated 1.2 to 1.5 million people.1 But how big an impact would restoring the vote to felons really have, and how much support is there for it?

To answer that question, first we need to take a step back and get a better sense of what voting rights felons are granted at the state level. Each state has different rules for whether felons are allowed to vote, and those rules vary widely. Only two states allow all felons, even those who are currently incarcerated, to vote: Maine and Vermont. Fourteen states, plus the District of Columbia, bar prisoners from voting but automatically restore their right to vote when they are released. Twenty-two states restore felons’ right to vote only after they complete their full sentences, including prison and parole; four of those states allow people on probation to vote, while the other 18 do not. Ten of the remaining 12 states permanently disenfranchise some felons, while Iowa and Kentucky do not restore voting rights to any felons except on a case-by-case basis.2 But even within these categories there are differences: For example, some states treat violent offenders (murderers and sex offenders, for example) differently from nonviolent ones. So felon re-enfranchisement proposals could take many forms, but the more sweeping a proposal is, the less popular it tends to be.

The farthest-left position — Sanders’s — is to follow in the footsteps of Maine and Vermont by never stripping felons of their voting rights to begin with. Adopting that policy nationwide would have a bigger electoral impact than other ideas that have been floated over the years. A 2016 study by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group that opposes felon disenfranchisement, estimated that 6.1 million felons (including 2.2 million African Americans) were disenfranchised nationwide,3 although that research was done before Florida’s re-enfranchisement amendment passed last year. (A few other states have also made changes that put a smaller number of felons back on the rolls in the intervening years.) But the idea of allowing all felons to vote does not have much public support. In a March 2018 poll for HuffPost, YouGov found that 24 percent of U.S. adults supported restoring felons’ voting rights while they are in prison and 58 percent opposed it, including 41 percent who were “strongly” opposed. And a Quinnipiac poll conducted just last week found that only 31 percent of registered voters support allowing prisoners to vote — 65 percent were opposed.

From ABC News:

1-on-1 with 2020 hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders

As of now, at least, full re-enfranchisement doesn’t seem like a winning issue for Democrats. For example, President Trump’s re-election campaign attacked Sanders for his stance in the days after the town hall, calling it “deeply offensive” and pointing out it would allow domestic terrorists like the surviving Boston Marathon bomber to vote. Even among Democrats, the idea is controversial. The HuffPost/YouGov poll found that Democrats opposed Sanders’s position 46 percent to 38 percent; Quinnipiac found that Democratic voters were about evenly divided on the issue. Bills to eliminate felony disenfranchisement failed to pass the legislature this year in both New Mexico and Hawaii, where Democrats have full control of state government. And no other Democratic presidential candidate has yet joined Sanders in calling for all prisoners to be allowed to vote.

But the public is more likely to support restoring the right to vote for felons who have been released from prison, even if they are on probation or parole — 38 percent of adults supported the idea in the HuffPost/YouGov poll, while 44 percent were opposed. According to that Sentencing Project study, if a measure like that had passed in 2016, it would have restored the right to vote to all but 1.4 million of the people who were disenfranchised at the time.

Although the public at large is narrowly opposed to letting people on probation or parole vote, the HuffPost/YouGov poll did indicate that the idea was a fairly mainstream position among Democrats (who supported it 58 percent to 30 percent). That might explain why there has been some momentum on this front in Democratic-controlled legislatures this year. Both chambers in Colorado have passed a bill to allow parolees to vote (Colorado already allows people on probation to vote), and if Gov. Jared Polis signs it, it will grant the vote to an estimated 10,000 more people. A similar bill has passed the Nevada Assembly, and Connecticut is considering a bill that could enfranchise 4,600 parolees and thousands more people facing trial.

But the easiest proposal to pass might be one that simply returns the ballot to felons after they have completed all parts of their sentence, as a plurality of states currently do. (Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have all said they’d support voting rights for people who’ve been released from prison, though it’s unclear if that includes parolees and people on probation.) According to the Sentencing Project report, that would have re-enfranchised about 3.1 million people in 2016. However, at the time, Florida alone accounted for nearly half of all felons who had completed their sentence but still could not vote, according to the report, and it has since restored voting rights to many of those people. To get a rough idea of how many people might be eligible to have their voting rights restored if this kind of bill passed, we subtracted state-by-state estimates of how many people have been re-enfranchised in the last three years from the Sentencing Project’s 2016 estimate and got a ballpark figure of about 2 million.4 And crucially, it is downright popular as a policy: 63 percent of adults told HuffPost/YouGov that they supported restoring the vote to felons who had completed their sentences. Just 20 percent were opposed.

That support cuts across all demographic groups, too — men and women, whites and nonwhites, young and old voters, Democrats and Republicans all favor it.5 Indeed, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, announced earlier this year that restoring the vote to people who have completed their sentences was one of her top priorities. The state House overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that would have achieved her goal, but it died in committee in the state Senate. But a February poll, conducted by Selzer & Co. for the Des Moines Register, found that 64 percent of Iowa adults favored Reynolds’s proposal and only 29 percent opposed it. And Florida’s Amendment 4, which re-enfranchised people who had served their full sentences, passed with 65 percent of the vote.

Crucially, though, that Florida amendment carved out an exception for those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses. In that HuffPost/YouGov poll, people who said they supported the restoration of felon voting rights were split about evenly between believing rights should be restored to all felons and believing they should only be restored to people convicted of nonviolent felonies, so limitations like these probably do make the idea a safer political proposition. Perhaps not coincidentally, that seems to be where lots of 2020 presidential contenders have landed too — neatly avoiding the threat that their opponents will run attack ads saying they would restore rights for the imprisoned Boston Marathon bomber. In the aftermath of Sanders’s proclamation, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro said they were willing to grant prisoners the right to vote, but only those who had been convicted of nonviolent crimes. Sen. Kamala Harris said, “Do I think that people who commit murder, people who are terrorists, should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do.” And Rep. Eric Swalwell believes that “some people, like the Boston Marathon bombers, those individuals should never vote in America again.”


  1. However, the legislature just passed a bill requiring felons to pay fines, fees and restitution before they can vote; if Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the bill, it could keep an estimated 700,000 people off the voter rolls, at least temporarily.

  2. Technically, this also true in Virginia, but in practice, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and current Gov. Ralph Northam have individually restored the voting rights of most Virginia felons who have completed their sentences.

  3. Based on prison, parole and probation statistics from the Department of Justice, as well as estimates of how many felons have completed their sentences, which were made using past years’ felony conviction data with adjustments for mortality and recidivism rates. These state-by-state estimates were then compared against each state’s rules about which felons, if any, are allowed to vote.

  4. Specifically, we estimated the low end of the range would be about 1.4 million people and the high end would be around 2.5 million.

  5. Majorities of most demographic groups favored the policy, except for among Hispanic respondents, where the idea received plurality support.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.