Restoring voting rights to former felons

by Wade Rathke
March 17, 2021

New Orleans      In these times when a number of states are trying to curtail voting rights for their citizens, the governor of Virginia made some news by speeding up the process for former felons to vote in that state. By making the review of a former prisoner’s status immediately after release from incarceration, rather than after a lengthy probation, more then 69,000 are now expected to be able to vote. Virginia has been a recent leader in restorative justice of voting rights. Governor Northam will now have been responsible for over 110,000 ex-prisoners being able to vote as he joins previous governors, both Republican and Democratic, in taking such action. This is all good news.

Restorative justice campaigns have had increasing success in recent years, but it’s still a patchwork, state by state. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures:


  • In the District of Columbia, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.
  • In 18 states, felons lose their voting rights only while incarcerated, and receive automatic restoration upon release.
  • In 19 states, felons lose their voting rights during incarceration, and for a period of time after, typically while on parole and/or probation. Voting rights are automatically restored after this time period. Former felons may also have to pay any outstanding fines, fees or restitution before their rights are restored as well.
  • In 11 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely for some crimes, or require a governor’s pardon in order for voting rights to be restored, face an additional waiting period after completion of sentence (including parole and probation) or require additional action before voting rights can be restored.


For example, in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas, voting rights are lost until sentence is completed, including parole or probation, and then automatically restored. In Mississippi, it takes some more bells and whistles. Virginia was one of the eleven states at the bottom of the list, and they now move into a faster lane.

The issue of restorative rights is a flashpoint around voting access and suppression, largely because of the way that the drug war on crime initiated by President Clinton ended up racializing to an even greater degree the incarceration experience. Restoring voting rights is caught in the same racial vise, as we have seen most dramatically in Florida, where voters overwhelmingly approved allowing former felons to vote, and the Republican legislature then imposed additional conditions, including paying extensive court costs and fines, before eligibility was achieved.

At the grassroots level, the Voter Purge Project found that no matter what the chart or even state law might have said, former felons were more likely to have been purged. Twenty-five percent of the inaccurate purges we found in Georgia, when our partners at Georgia State University hit the streets, were former felons who had been told that they were ineligible. The same situation was repeated in our door-to-door survey of purged voters in North Carolina done by our partners there, Action NC. Some of the responses we received in mass texting to purged voters across more than a dozen states where we were able to find phone matches before the November 2020 election, indicated this experience is widespread.

We’re making progress, but registration and purges are done at the local level in county and parish offices. Governors and legislators may be issuing orders and passing laws that say one thing, but unless there is more supervision and accountability at the local level, many former felons with their debt to society now paid are finding that they still are not being allowed to vote and achieve full restoration of their civil and legal rights.

Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International.

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