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California State Capitol Building

Photo by Justin Brockie | flickr creative commons

Election Day is an annual reminder on the importance of civic engagement in deciding who leads our government and the policies we implement in our neighborhoods and beyond. While some choose not to vote because of an otherwise busy life or their frustration with the political process, an alarming number of Americans do not even have the option to vote because of their involvement with the criminal justice system.

According to the Sentencing Project, approximately 5.85 million Americans are not able to vote because of a felony conviction, also known as felon disenfranchisement.” A 2010 statewide analysis found this impacted 1 out of 40 American adults, which represents a substantial increase from 1976 when 1.17 million Americans were similarly disenfranchised. Such policies have a disproportionate impact on individuals of color, with 1 out of 13 voting age African Americans disenfranchised. Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia struggle most with this issue, given more than 20% of their African American adults are unable to vote because of a prior felony conviction.

These civic restrictions vary significantly by state. Some restrict voting only for incarcerated individuals, while others also impact those on parole, probation, and even those who have completed their felony sentence. In California, felony disenfranchisements impacts those, presently imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony.” However, the state has not adequately addressed if individuals subject to Realignment and serving their sentence in county jail retain their right to vote. Nevertheless, these policies put America out of step with the rest of the world.

The impact of these policies is substantial given the sheer size of the affected population as well as the implications for civic engagement in general. As Attorney General Eric Holder noted this year, permanent exclusion from the civic community does not advance any objective of our criminal justice system.” Holder has called on states to remove this restriction. Indeed, active participation in the political process by voting has been shown to reduce recidivism by 10 percent. Moreover, analysis has found that returning the right to vote to those who have been disenfranchised could significantly impact the outcome of key 2014 races in battleground states, such as Florida and Kentucky.

Voters and policymakers should look for ways to engage all Americans in the political process. Politics and public policy work best when they incorporate a diverse spectrum of voices, particularly those most impacted by its decisions. Moreover, our democracy suffers when large numbers of its citizens are excluded from the right to vote.