Two weeks ago, I cast my first mail-in ballot for President of the United States. I have been waiting to vote since I was 10, especially for president. When I filled in the bubbles, I felt proud to have reached this milestone and proud to be an American. I could never imagine having my right to vote be taken away. However, this is the case for millions of ex-felons across the United States. 

As has been hammered into our heads, the Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal.” However, the Constitution does not explicitly state who does and who does not have the right to vote. The combination of the Three-fifths Compromise and the creation of the Electoral College gives quite a clear picture that not everyone has the equal right to vote in our democracy. Prior to 1865, many states allowed only property-owning white men to vote, something that had been popular in the 13 colonies as well. Then the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were ratified to allow Black men to vote. However, after these amendments were ratified, states started to disenfranchise Black people through legacy clauses and poll taxes. Then, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Laws have been passed to help those with disabilities to vote, such as the Help America Vote Act in 2002, as well as the Expansion of the Voting Rights Act in 1970 to help non-English speaking Americans  vote. However, at every turn, states have tried to disenfranchise voters.

As of 2020, there are an estimated 5.7 million people who are disenfranchised because of a prior felony conviction. One in 16 Black people are disenfranchised nationally, a rate 3.7 times higher than white people with prior felony convictions. In some states, like Alabama, Virginia and Wyoming, the rate of Black citizens’ disenfranchisement is one in seven. 

Once felons have served time for their crimes, they deserve to be reintegrated into American society and have the right to perform their civic duty. The disenfranchisement of ex-felons calls into question whether we live and experience the benefits of living in a true democracy — though, technically, the United States never was a true democracy because of the Electoral College. We are, in fact, a democratic republic. 

In 2018, Florida voters passed a referendum, Amendment Four, to restore the right to vote for ex-felons, with the exception of those convicted of murder or sexual abuse. As a result, an additional 1.4 million people could vote in the 2020 elections. Almost immediately after Florida passed this amendment, the legislature passed a law, Bill 7066 - Election Administration, requiring former felons to pay all outstanding fines and fees before registering to vote. 

In Florida, Amendment Four was a big step toward giving former felons the right to vote. However, the passage of the law has now put this right on hold in requiring ex-felons to pay all of their existing fines and fees before being legally allowed to register to vote. According to Governor Ron DeSantis, the law “confirms that the amendment does not apply to a felon who has failed to complete all the terms of his sentence,” meaning that the paying of fines and fees are part of the sentence of these ex-felons. 

There have been multiple lawsuits to contest this law. In March, a Florida court ruled that the law amounted to an unconstitutional poll tax. However, in September, a federal appeals court, in a 6-3 ruling, with four Trump appointees in the majority, reversed the earlier court ruling. According to a New York Times estimate, between 70 and 80% of the ex-felons who earned back their right to vote through Florida’s Amendment Four owe some amount of debt, and thus will be ineligible to vote in the general election due to the appeals court decision. Additionally, 65% of Florida voters voted for Amendment Four, and now its effects are being dramatically decreased. 

Ex-felon voter disenfranchisement is a national issue. Nine states including Alabama, Delaware and Tennessee have made it illegal for people who have committed certain crimes to vote, including murder and sexual abuse. In Arizona, if someone has two or more felony convictions, they have to appeal to the state court to get their voting rights restored. Of note, Massachusetts allows ex-felons to vote upon the completion of their sentences.

If ex-felons are not allowed to vote, their issues will not be a priority for those who claim to represent them. When laws are passed regarding the prison system, those who have experienced it firsthand need to have a say. To live in a free society, everyone needs to have the right to vote. Once someone has served their time, their rights should be restored, no matter what they might have done to be convicted in the first place.

This is only the beginning of the conversation regarding voter disenfranchisement, especially regarding ex-felons. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow people to vote from prison, and there needs to be a real conversation as to whether people should retain the right to vote while they serve a sentence. If voting truly is a fundamental right, then it should not be obstructed for any reason. Every citizen should have the right to vote, from the age of 18 until death.