www.nytimes.com/ The New York Times, Published: July 15, 2012
The number of Americans who cannot vote because they have been convicted of a felony continues to grow. The Sentencing Project reported Thursday that in 2010 5.5 million voting-age citizens were disenfranchised because of their criminal records, up by 9 percent from 2004.
About a quarter are in prison, but the rest have completed their sentences or are on probation or parole. The only reason not to let them vote is to stigmatize them or to continue punishing them. Only Maine and Vermont impose no voting restrictions on felons or ex-felons. The other states impose various restrictions, with 11 states (six in the South) banning ex-felons from voting even after they have completed prison and probation or parole.
These limits are seriously counterproductive. Former offenders who are allowed to vote are less likely to return to prison and more likely to become reintegrated into their communities. Public opinion and efforts by some states to restore voting rights to ex-felons in some circumstances reflect that view. But because the justice system locks up so many people every year, many more people lose their voting rights than benefit from the state efforts.
The disproportionate number of blacks among the disenfranchised remains a huge racial justice problem. Almost 7.7 percent of blacks of voting age are disenfranchised because of their criminal records, compared with less than 2 percent for non-blacks. This stripping of black voting rights is linked to their disproportionate number in the criminal system — blacks make up 38.2 percent of the prison population, though they account for only 12.6 percent of the general population.
Courts and scholars have long concluded that race explains why minorities are overrepresented in prisons better than any other factor. Until the criminal system is made fairer, the number of people disenfranchised will grow, with blacks unfairly excluded from voting at a much higher rate.
A version of this editorial appears in print on July 16, 2012, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Disenfranchised Felons.