In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Felon Disenfranchisement

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Estimating the Scope and Effect
  • History in the United States
  • Public Opinion
  • Race
  • Arguments and Debates
  • Reenfranchisement of Felons
  • Voices of Disenfranchised Felons
  • Studies
  • International Views and Policies
  • Civic Reintegration of Convicted Felons
  • Other Collateral Consequences

Criminology Felon Disenfranchisement
Michelle Inderbitzin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 July 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0152


Felon disenfranchisement refers is the practice of barring individuals who have been convicted of felony crimes from voting in political elections. While felon and prisoner disenfranchisement (not allowing those in prison to vote) can be found in countries across the globe, the United States stands alone in restricting the voting rights of millions of nonincarcerated felons. Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza have provided a number of estimates of the scope of felon disenfranchisement in the United States; their latest study shows that as of 2010, approximately 2.5 percent of the US voting-age population is disenfranchised due to a current or former felony conviction. States differ substantially in their practices—from one extreme of allowing current prisoners to vote, as well as those in jail or on probation or parole, to the other extreme of disenfranchising convicted felons for life—most states fall somewhere in between. Public-opinion studies suggest that the majority of citizens favor allowing nonincarcerated felons to vote, but most states have been slow to change their laws and policies. The current debate in the literature leans toward reenfranchising felons, in part because of the racially disparate impact of such laws. While felon disenfranchisement laws are facially neutral, their impact is particularly felt in the African American population and communities. While policies at the state and federal level in the United States may impose more-immediate material costs by restricting (1) felons’ access to housing, (2) the ability to serve in the military, (3) the right to own firearms, (4) professional licensure, and (5) the receipt of public benefits, disenfranchisement law has drawn significant attention from scholars. Felon disenfranchisement is a dynamic field and a changing landscape; a number of states have changed laws and practices for reinstatement of rights in recent years.

General Overviews

A good deal of scholarship has been done on the topic of felon disenfranchisement since the early 1990s. The works selected for this section offer broad overviews of the scope of felon disenfranchisement, the impact on voting and communities, debates over the policies, reforms, and an international perspective. Manza and Uggen 2006 and Uggen, et al. 2005 provide cogent and well-researched sociological analyses of felon disenfranchisement, while Reiman 2005, Hull 2006, and Fellner and Mauer 1998 give context to the arguments for and against such policies. Abramsky 2006 offers a detailed journalistic account of local politics and felon disenfranchisement, while Ewald and Rottinghaus 2009 is an edited volume putting the issue of disenfranchisement in international perspective, and the Sentencing Project website offers frequently updated news, information, and reports on felon disenfranchisement, including a map that gives statistics for each state and allows easy comparison among states.

  • Abramsky, Sasha. 2006. Conned: How millions went to prison, lost the vote, and helped send George W. Bush to the White House. New York: New Press.

    Written by a journalist, this book explores criminal disenfranchisement in twelve different US states, offering a finely detailed look at the local politics driving disenfranchisement policies and practices.

  • Ewald, Alec, and Brandon Rottinghaus, eds. 2009. Criminal disenfranchisement in an international perspective. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511576713

    Offers a comparative perspective on felon disenfranchisement, with chapters employing diverse methods written by some of the top experts in the field. Broad topics include an overview of current laws, comparative legal and political approaches, and case studies of prisoner disenfranchisement in different countries.

  • Fellner, Jamie, and Marc Mauer. 1998. Losing the vote: The impact of felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States. Washington, DC: Sentencing Project.

    Excellent early overview and introduction to felon disenfranchisement; includes estimates of national and racial impact, and recommendations for reform.

  • Hull, Elizabeth A. 2006. The disenfranchisement of ex-felons. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

    Readable book that offers a balanced view of arguments for and against disenfranchisement policies, situating such arguments in their historical, political, and philosophical contexts. Focuses on reform efforts in the United States enacted after the 2000 presidential election, and ultimately argues that felons should be granted the right to vote.

  • Manza, Jeff, and Christopher Uggen. 2006. Locked out: Felon disenfranchisement and American democracy. Studies in Crime and Public Policy. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195149326.001.0001

    Well-researched sociological analysis of felon disenfranchisement in the United States. Great place to start for an overview on felon disenfranchisement. Very readable book includes historical analyses, sophisticated statistical models, and qualitative interviews giving voice to those who have been disenfranchised.

  • Mauer, Marc. 2002. Mass imprisonment and the disappearing voters. In Invisible punishment: The collateral consequences of mass imprisonment. Edited by Mark Mauer and Meda Chesney-Lind, 50–58. New York: New Press.

    An early argument that felon disenfranchisement laws are counterproductive and out of line with international norms. Given relatively low rates of voter participation and the disparate impact of felon disenfranchisement laws on African Americans, the United States should consider ways of bringing more Americans into the electoral process.

  • Reiman, Jeffrey. 2005. Liberal and republican arguments against the disenfranchisement of felons. Criminal Justice Ethics 24.1: 3–18.

    DOI: 10.1080/0731129X.2005.9992176

    Philosophical argument suggests that enfranchising felons—including those in prison—would make be good social policy and would make us all better citizens. Thoughtful points and explanation and engagement with a number of different views.

  • Sentencing Project.

    Regularly updated website on felon disenfranchisement includes an interactive map of state disenfranchisement policies and statistics, current news and media reports on felon disenfranchisement, and numerous publications highlighting state laws and developments in policy. An excellent place to start researching felon disenfranchisement and its impact.

  • Uggen, Christopher, Angela Behrens, and Jeff Manza. 2005. Criminal disenfranchisement. Annual Review of Law and Social Science 1:307–322.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.lawsocsci.1.041604.115840

    Clear, concise overview of the history of criminal-disenfranchisement laws, rationales for the disenfranchisement of felons, critiques of weak legal and penological reasoning disenfranchising felons, and ongoing challenges to felon voting laws and restrictions throughout US history. Well-written, wide-ranging discussion.

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