Felons and the right to vote

This post was written by OK Policy intern Carly Putnam. Carly is an undergraduate at the University of Tulsa majoring in Sociology and Women’s & Gender Studies. She can be found on Twitter at @CarlyPutnam.

Photo by Keith Ivey used under a Creative Commons license.
Photo by Keith Ivey used under a Creative Commons license.

Virginia made headlines earlier this month when Governor Bob McDonnell signed an order automatically reinstating voting rights to nonviolent offenders who had completed their sentences and fulfilled other requirements. This has sparked a national conversation on felon disenfranchisement, so we thought we’d take a look at how things stand on the topic in Oklahoma.

Under Oklahoma law, felons are disenfranchised, or have their voting rights suspended, for the full lengths of their sentences. This means, for example, that a felon who is sentenced to eight years in prison but serves only four is unable to register to vote for a full eight years. As of 2010, about 1.8 percent of Oklahomans (51,491 people) were unable to vote due to felon disenfranchisement. Because African-Americans tend to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system, they are similarly disenfranchised disproportionately, at 6.6 percent (13,526 people).

While Oklahoma ranks above the national average for felony convictions (one in twelve Oklahomans have a felony record, compared to one in fifteen  nationally), it ranks below average in felon disenfranchisement.  Nationwide, about 2.5 percent of the American population is disenfranchised (5,852,180 people), including 7.7 percent of African-Americans (2,231,022 people). The national average is bumped up by very high levels of disenfranchisement in a handful of mostly Southern states, peaking in Florida where more than 10 percent of the population and more than 23 percent of African-Americans are disenfranchised  

Oklahoma’s disenfranchisement policies are relatively common across states; twenty states disenfranchise felons as Oklahoma does, and nine states are harsher, disenfranchising some or all ex-felons for life. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, do not disenfranchise felons at all.

So why do we disenfranchise felons? In colonial America, penalties for moral crimes such as drunkenness included loss of civil rights, justified by the need to protect the “purity” of the ballot box from the morally corrupt. In the Reconstruction-era South, felon disenfranchisement was unevenly applied to people of color as part of a latticework of methods used to block them from voting. Although people of color are disproportionately affected at every step of the criminal justice process, the Supreme Court has upheld felon disenfranchisement, ruling that the intent is not inherently racist.

Those who support re-enfranchisement of felons point to studies (1, 2) that have linked re-enfranchisement to lower recidivism rates. Commentators have noted that in a country that struggles with low voter turnout, and especially in a state such as Oklahoma, which had the third-lowest voter participation nationwide in the 2012 election, it seems counterproductive to deliberately block American citizens from voting.

There is unlikely to be any serious reconsideration of the state’s policy on felon disenfranchisement within the near future. A bill introduced in the spring of 2012 by Sen. Constance Johnson (D-Oklahoma County) that would have restored voting rights upon release from prison was defeated in committee. In a press release, Sen. Johnson commented, “Voting is essential to the process of reintegrating into society. The fact that we are so unforgiving is a sad state of affairs.”

Furthermore, having a felony record should not mean Oklahomans lose all ties to their families, neighborhoods, and communities. School boards races, mayoral races, and even presidential elections play fundamental roles in their daily lives, whether behind bars or out on parole. OK Policy has previously discussed how restrictions on jobs available to ex-felons is counter-productive and unjust. Disenfranchisement is another example of how we prohibit what we should encourage. If we want felons to reintegrate lawfully into their communities and to break the cycle of incarceration, we should not forbid this most fundamental right of citizen participation in a democratic society.


Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

9 thoughts on “Felons and the right to vote

  1. Nice work, Carly. We have worked hard to restore felon voting rights in Virginia, as advocates have done in other states. We have a nice coalition of organizations working on it together.

  2. I believe that all felons should be permitted to vote. Felons do not lose their citizenship upon conviction nor do they lose other rights guaranteed by the Constitution, so they should not lose their right to vote.

  3. It’s sad Oklahoma is so behind in times! We need a change in our elected officials. I wish Oklahoma would look into changing the voting law here. We need change for the better. We’ve had plenty bad.JMO.

  4. I agree that felons do not lose citizenship so as soon as they are taxed by the government they should receive all of the rights of the taxing authority. Freedom of speech, bear arms, vote etc. If you do not want these people to have these basic rights then you should not be allowed to take their money (tax)

  5. As a convicted felon, I can attest to the many, many roadblocks that a felon encounters. Finding employment is probably the #1 roadblock encountered. Jobs are not just a few or far in between, they are practically non existent. The right to vote is the second. A felon not only loses his right to bear arms, they are effectively denied their right to protect themselves, their families and their property. Law enforcement cannot protect you when they are minutes away and seconds count! A state felon has the ability to have their criminal records expunged or sealed, effectively restoring their civil rights. There is but one recourse for a federal felon and that is a presidential pardon. A federal felon cannot have their criminal records expunged or sealed. There is no recourse to restore their civil liberties. This effectively is a life sentence.

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