America has gradually rid itself of arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions on the right to vote. Constitutional amendments and Supreme Court decisions granted the vote to women, 18-to-20-year-olds and the poor, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 ensured that minorities could in reality exercise their theoretical voting rights. Yet one restriction of the franchise continues to exist largely unremarked: state laws that deny the vote to convicted criminal offenders.

Felon disenfranchisement laws exist in all but three states, and most apply to those who have been released as well as those still serving time. Twenty-nine states disenfranchise felons on parole, and 32 states disenfranchise those on probation. Fourteen states go so far as to disenfranchise criminal offenders permanently–long after they have served their sentences and are no longer under any supervision. Restoration of civil rights is often technically available, but in practice it rarely happens because of restrictive eligibility rules and procedural hurdles. In 16 states, offenders tried under federal law are ineligible to vote.