IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

After California restores felon voting rights, activists see growing national trend

Advocacy groups estimate there are 6.1 million Americans who are convicted felons barred from voting due to state laws.
Image: People cast their ballot at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood
People cast their ballot at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on Oct 30, 2020.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — California voters delivered the state's convicted felons a win on Election Day: the ability to join them the next time the state votes.

A national movement continues across the country to let felons — many who have completed their sentences and ended their parole — return to the voting booth.

For Earlonne Woods, co-host of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated podcast Ear Hustle and an advocate for ex-felons who are working to return to life after incarceration, the ability to vote after leaving prison was an important step to reconnecting to society.

“I was first incarcerated at 9 years old,” Woods told NBC News. After 21 years in prison, Woods was granted clemency by California’s governor. His parole ended on September 23rd, 2020 and that night he registered to vote.

"I do pay taxes. So for me it was more of taxation without representation," Woods said. "So I definitely wanted to get involved in the process."

According to the advocacy organization, The Sentencing Project, as of 2016, there are 6.1 million Americans who are convicted felons barred from voting due to state laws. About 75 percent of those are no longer incarcerated and half have already completed their parole.

This year, Californians voted to restore voting rights to more than 50,000 people on parole in the state with the passage of Proposition 17. The law change, championed by a group called Initiate Justice and the formerly incarcerated, allows reentering citizens to automatically register to vote.

The measure passed with almost 60 percent of the vote.

According to the National Council of State Legislatures, there is a national trend of states restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated. In most states, felons lose their voting rights during their incarceration and for a period of time after. In eleven states, felons lose their vote indefinitely.

California's measure faced opposition opposition from some state Republicans who called the measure an affront to victims of crime and argued that felons should serve their full sentence before having their voting rights restored — including parole.

The effort to restore voting right for felons is a deeply racial one.

In a report done by the California Initiative Review on Proposition 17, it highlighted the racial disparities in California’s parole system. While African Americans are just 6 percent of the population, they make up 26 percent of the state’s parole population. With the passing of Proposition 17, it restored a significant amount of the African American population’s ability to vote.

A 2016 report released by The Sentencing Project found that while Black disenfranchisement varies greatly from state to state, in four states — Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia — one in five African Americans don’t have voting rights.

Woods sees voting as a basic right as an American citizen — felon or not.

“You're still not a part of the're still being denied the one basic right that individuals have which is voting,” Woods said. “That's the one thing that's been fought for forever, but in some capacity, there’s still some type of voter suppression.”

In 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4 restoring voting rights to the formerly incarcerated. Before passage, Florida was one of four states that permanently disenfranchised felons.

“I graduated law school, and you know my story was that in spite of all the obstacles that I've been able to overcome I still could not practice law with my civil rights [having] not been restored, and eventually in 2016 when my wife Sheena ran for state office. I could not even vote for her,” said Desmond Meade, founder of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition (FRRC).

The Florida law restored voting rights to over one million people.

Floridians required felons to “complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation” and to pay any outstanding fines before being allowed to vote.

“Nothing speaks more to citizenship than being able to vote. So when you talk about citizenship, even though someone makes a mistake they should not stop being an American citizen,” says Meade.

In 2005, Meade had recently been released from prison and decided to check himself into drug treatment after considering suicide. It was there that he decided to get involved in advocacy work and learned about felon disenfranchisement. Soon after, then-Gov. Rick Scott took office and changed the state's rules allowing some felons to vote, a turning point for Meade.

“I thought that that was way too much power for any politician whether they're Democrat, Republican, or whatever,” Meade said. Meade decided to focus his advocacy efforts on restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated.

Initiate Justice was working on similar efforts across the country. Taina Vargas-Edmond, the co-founder of Initiate Justice, decided she needed to mobilize recently released and currently incarcerated felons. The coalition fighting for the bill was chaired by formerly incarcerated people or those who have incarcerated loved ones.

The restoration of voting rights has long been linked to the low rates of recidivism among convicted felons. Two reports done by the Florida Parole Commission showed returning citizens who had their voting rights restored are 4.5 percent less likely than average to be a repeat offender.

The next step for Initiate Justice is to get voting rights for those still inside prison. Their messaging focuses on the idea that no one should ever lose their vote.

“When people who have returned home from prison, have their voting rights restored, they feel more connected to the community and feel part of the solution rather than a problem, and therefore are less likely to return to prison and more likely to reintegrate into society successfully,” Vargas- Edmond told NBC News.