Nearly 5 million Americans are unable to vote because they have been convicted of a felony, making felons and former felons are the single largest group barred by law from voting in the United States, The Nation magazine reports.
Only Maine and Vermont allow prisoners to vote. Most states revoke the right from those in prison and also those on parole or probation. While most states return the right to vote once the terms of a sentence have been completed, thirteen states take voting rights away for life–a punishment rare in the rest of the Western world. As a result, there are now more ex-prisoners than prisoners in the U.S. who can’t vote.
Civil rights advocates predict that voting rights for prisoners and ex-prisoners will be the next suffrage movement, as lawyers, prison advocates, voting rights groups, and foundations have taken up the cause. If history offers any lessons, it won’t be an easy fight or a quick one. That’s because the removal of barriers for felons could affect the political balance of power. For one thing, most felons who get the chance vote Democratic, and with a Republican administration in power, there is little chance for change on a national scale.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund has filed a class action lawsuit challenging disenfranchisement of felons in New York State. “This really shouldn’t be viewed any differently than any other struggle for suffrage in this country,” says Janai Nelson, a lawyer on the case.
Crime victims and their relatives disagree. “I don’t want these people having access to making changes in my life; they have already done that,” says Janice Grieshaber, whose daughter Jenna was murdered in Albany in 1997 just before she was to graduate from nursing school. Grieshaber says people who don’t follow the laws shouldn’t have a say in making them.