Nearly a half-million ex-cons have regained their voting rights since 1996 as eight states eased their restrictions on felons, an advocacy group says in a new study.
Despite the changes, an estimated 4 million citizens remain barred from voting because they are in prison for felonies or have felony records, according to the Sentencing Project, a D.C.-based group that seeks alternatives to incarceration.
“Americans have traditionally believed that once you paid your debt to society, you’re free to rejoin the community. This clearly conflicts with that,” said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project. “Support for reform is growing very broadly.”
From 1996 to 2003, states took a variety of approaches, the study finds.
Nevada and Wyoming repealed lifetime bans for first-time, nonviolent felons; Delaware repealed a lifetime ban but now requires a five-year waiting period; Texas dropped the two-year waiting period that had earlier replaced a lifetime ban.
Other states that eased restrictions were Connecticut, Maryland, New Mexico and Virginia.
Overall, those changes meant that at least 471,000 former prison inmates have had their voting rights restored, according to an analysis cited by the project.
But states did not always make voting easier for felons. In Massachusetts and Utah, voter referendums took away the right of felons to vote behind bars. The move affected about 23,000 inmates. Now, only Maine and Vermont allow such voting.
Some conservatives said the push to let felons vote is misguided.
“People who violate the rights of others and have harmed others should still be excluded,” said David Muhlhausen, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
The Sentencing Project is part of a larger campaign involving civil rights organizations and advocacy groups for the poor. They are pressing states to ease restrictions on felons, emphasizing the harm that prohibitions do to the black community.
Of 4 million disenfranchised voters, blacks make up one-third, researchers estimate. Overall, some 13 percent of all black men are barred from voting because of such laws.
“I’ve been relegated to the same status as my ancestors when they were in slavery,” said Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, a community organizer in New York who served 13 years of a 20-year manslaughter sentence.
He has been out of prison and on parole for two years, but under state law will not be able to cast a vote until his full sentence is complete.
“I’m a taxpayer and I’m a citizen,” Hayden said. “I’m a very political person. I have opinions on everything that human beings do, but I have no voice.”