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States loosen felon voting restrictions

[JURIST] Sixteen states have in recent years made it easier for convicted felons to vote, according to new report [official report, PDF] by The Sentencing Project [advocacy website]. Lifetime voting bans in Iowa [JURIST report], Nebraska, and New Mexico have been lifted, and nine additional states have made voting easier for freed prisoners and those merely on probation. An exception to this trend is Mississippi, where the list of crimes for which offenders can be disenfranchised was expanded in 2004. The Mississippi ban, however, is being challenged by the ACLU as was a restriction on parolee voting in Colorado [JURIST report]. The issue of felon voting rights also stands to complicate state government efforts to prevent electoral fraud [JURIST report], as it did in Florida's infamous felon voting list [USA Today article], recently dropped by the Sunshine State.

An underlying reason for the new suffrage drive may be the effective restriction on minority voting rights as a result of the demographically disproportionate number of black inmates. As the Sentencing Project's report notes, "An estimated 1 in 12 African Americans is disenfranchised [by felon voting laws], a rate nearly five times the rate of non-African Americans."

As with so many other procedures, federal law dictates that states determine their own voting rules. Consequently, the spectrum ranges from no voting restrictions on felons in states like Maine and Vermont, all the way to lifetime disenfranchisement for all felons in Kentucky, Florida, and Virginia. Most states, however, simply preclude criminals from voting while incarcerated or on parole. The New York Times has more.

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