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In the U.S., some 4.6 million people are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction

An estimated 2% of the voting age population in the United States will be ineligible to cast ballots during this year's midterm elections due to state laws banning people with felony convictions from voting.

That's according to research released Tuesday by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for restoration of voting rights for people with prior felony convictions.

"This report makes it clear that millions of our citizens will remain voiceless in the upcoming midterms," Amy Fettig, the group's executive director, said in a statement. "Felony disenfranchisement is just the latest in a long line of attempts to restrict ballot access, just like poll taxes, literacy tests and property requirements were used in the past."

The impact of these state-level bans, which are on the books in 48 states across the country, varies significantly depending on where someone lives.

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According to the Sentencing Project, state-level disenfranchisement rates range from 0.15% in Massachusetts to more than 8% in Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. In Vermont and Maine (along with Washington, D.C.), none of the population is disenfranchised because those jurisdictions allow people in prison to vote.

Currently, 11 states deny voting rights to people after they finish their full sentences, including parole and probation.

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Overall, the number of Americans disenfranchised due to a felony conviction has been dropping in recent years. Since 2016, that number has declined by 24% "as more states enacted policies to curtail this practice and state prison populations declined modestly," according to the new research.

In 2016, 6.1 million people with felony convictions were disenfranchised. This year it's estimated that 4.6 million people will be barred from voting.

Demographic disparities and Florida turmoil

The Sentencing Project also found that state-level voting bans have a disproportionate impact on Black and Latino voters.

According to the report, "1 in 19 African-Americans of voting age is disenfranchised, a rate 3.5 times that of non-African Americans."

And researchers estimate that "at least 506,000 Latinx Americans or — or 1.7 percent of the voting eligible population" are also disenfranchised during this year's midterm elections.

Because ethnicity data is unevenly reported and limited, researchers say, this estimate is likely an undercount of true disenfranchisement rates among Latinos. Even with the undercounting, the report notes, "31 states report a higher rate of disenfranchisement in the Latinx population" than in their general population.

Among states, Florida has the highest number of disenfranchised citizens, with more than 1.1 million people currently prohibited from casting a ballot. Most of those individuals, researchers say, are disenfranchised simply because they cannot afford to pay court-ordered fees or fines.

In 2018, Florida voters approved a ballot measure restoring voting rights to people who completed their prison sentences — except people convicted of murder or a felony sex offense. But Republican lawmakers in the state then passed a bill requiring these returning citizens to fulfill every part of their sentence, including paying any fees or fines, in order to regain their voting rights. The Sentencing Project estimates that about 934,500 Floridians who have completed their sentences remain disenfranchised because of the state's law.

The Florida measure returned to the forefront in August, when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state was charging 20 people with voter fraud because they allegedly voted in the 2020 election despite having been convicted of a crime that prohibited them from having their voting rights restored.

Many of the individuals charged told law enforcement officials they thought they were eligible to vote because they had completed their sentences and had been issued a voter registration card. So far, at least one of those cases has been dismissed.

Voting rights advocates say these arrests were largely due to confusion created by Florida's law, as well as a lack of a database for election officials to check to see if someone qualifies to have their voting rights restored.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Lopez
Ashley Lopez is a political correspondent for NPR based in Austin, Texas. She joined NPR in May 2022. Prior to NPR, Lopez spent more than six years as a health care and politics reporter for KUT, Austin's public radio station. Before that, she was a political reporter for NPR Member stations in Florida and Kentucky. Lopez is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Miami, Florida.