America’s Unique Kind of Disenfranchisement

America, unlike most democracies, maintains barriers to ex-felons voting, which affects millions.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Ex-felons Gerald Dent (center, with sign) James Featherstone (L) and Niles Ringgold (R) join a rally for felon voting rights in Baltimore, Maryland on Mar. 10.
Ex-felons Gerald Dent (center, with sign) James Featherstone (L) and Niles Ringgold (R) join a rally for felon voting rights in Baltimore, Maryland on Mar. 10. Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

As the world watches the United States stagger into the third day of vote counting, this year’s election is a reminder of another way the country stands out: criminal disenfranchisement.

Take Florida, a state some polls suggested Joe Biden could win, even though President Donald Trump carried the state handily thanks to a boost in Latino support. But due to a loophole in a 2018 amendment to the Florida constitution, Floridians with felony convictions must pay all their fines and restitution before they can vote. That measure, which most affects Latino and Black voters, kept an estimated 900,000 felons who have served their time disenfranchised—more than Trump’s expected margin of victory.

A report estimates that 2.23 million Americans remain disenfranchised after their release due to their felony convictions, and Florida has more than any other state. While many states have begun restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies, states that maintain some restrictions tend to be solidly Republican. In the 2018 elections, where Georgia faced national criticism for widespread mismanagement and voter suppression, felony disenfranchisement prevented 211,511 ex-prisoners from voting. This year the state was again denounced for a mishandled primary election that included long polling lines and broken voting machines.

In comparison, only three other democratic countries—Armenia, Belgium, and Chile— have post-release restrictions on felony voting, though Germany, Norway, and Portugal also ban felons from voting based in rare cases that target the “integrity of the state” or the “constitutionally protected democratic order.” Italian and Polish courts are also empowered to ban certain people from voting after release.

Similarly, although only two U.S. states—Maine and Vermont—allow people in prison to vote, at least 21 democratic countries allow incarcerated felons to vote, including Canada, South Africa. and Ukraine. In 2005, the European Court of Human Rights found that a complete ban on voting from prison violated the European Convention on Human Rights. Two-time Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has called for the United States to extend voting rights to those currently incarcerated, but he has been met with widespread opposition. Accounting for the disenfranchisement of felons in prison, 5.2 million Americans have been prevented from voting in this election due to a felony conviction.

The U.S. practice has drawn international criticism. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has charged that U.S. policies violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that the country “should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that states restore voting rights to citizens who have fully served their sentences and those who have been released on parole.”

Darcy Palder is a former intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @DPalder

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