Max West is an OK Policy intern and a recent graduate of Rogers State University with a degree in Public Administration. He will begin law school at Oklahoma City University School of Law this fall.
Oklahoma’s 2018 primary election was momentous for many reasons, one being a large increase in voter turnout. So many people made it to the voting booths that our voter turnout surpassed that of the 2014 general election and the 2016 primary. Voters showed up to participate and make their voices heard on issues and show support for candidates that could have a direct impact on their lives. For over 60,000 voting-age Oklahomans, however, this civic opportunity was not available this past primary election. In Oklahoma, along with 17 other states, citizens who have been convicted of a felony are disenfranchised, meaning that they are stripped of their right to vote until they have served their prison sentence, parole, and probation. As other states reconsider this undemocratic and counterproductive practice, it’s time for our state to take another look at how we disenfranchise Oklahomans with felony records.
Disenfranchisement affects tens of thousands of Oklahomans
In Oklahoma, people convicted of felonies must complete their sentences before they regain their right to vote, even if they are granted early release from prison. For example, if someone is sentenced to 8 years in prison and is released after 4 years for good behavior, they still have to wait the full 8 years before they can register to vote again. Over 58,000 voting-age adults in Oklahoma were unable to vote in 2016 because of a felony conviction, despite over half of those people already having been released from prison, according to a recent report from the Sentencing Project. That number has grown to over 62,000 as of the beginning of this month, up 6 percent in just two years. This means that more than 1 in 50 adult Oklahomans will be unable to cast a ballot this year due to a felony conviction, up from just 1 in 125 in 1980. And since African-Americans tend to be overrepresented in the criminal justice system, they are disproportionately disenfranchised in Oklahoma, at 6.77 percent (15,116 people) in 2016.
It may seem harsh that this many potential Oklahoma voters are barred from voting, but there are a number of states with even harsher restrictions. Twelve states, six of which are in the South, bar felons from voting for life. It is because of these states that Oklahoma ranks below the national average rate of felon disenfranchisement, despite our state having above average felony conviction rates and being the “world’s prison capital.”
Nationwide, about 2.47 percent of the American population (6,106,327 people) is disenfranchised, including 7.4 percent of African-Americans (2,228,118 people). Florida, one of the twelve states that bar felons from voting for life, leads the nation in disenfranchisement with 10 percent of their state population and 21 percent of their African-American population being disenfranchised for past or present felonies (a state constitutional amendment will be on the Florida ballot this November to restore voting rights to 1.5 million of these disenfranchised Floridians). Twenty states, however, are less severe than Oklahoma, including Maine and Vermont, which do not restrict felons’ voting rights at any point.
Disenfranchisement limits reintegration
Disenfranchising people with felony convictions doesn’t just keep them from voting; it could also hamper a person’s ability to get their life back on track after a conviction. Some studies, for example, have linked re-enfranchisement to lower recidivism rates. Moreover, in states like Oklahoma, which had the sixth-lowest voter turnout in the country in the 2016 election, it’s counterproductive to block American citizens from voting if our goal is increased voter turnout and access to democracy.
From a community standpoint, there are very few advantages to keeping people with felony convictions from voting. In essence, we’re asking them to reintegrate into and contribute to society while simultaneously restricting one of their most fundamental civic rights. School board races, mayoral races, and presidential races have a direct impact on their lives, so their inability to participate undermines their role in society. We are restricting something that we should be encouraging.
Prospects for change
Little has been done recently at the state level to change this restrictive policy. The last action taken on the issue was in 2017 by Rep. Regina Goodwin (D-Tulsa), who wrote a bill that would have clarified the language of the current law so that it could not be easily misunderstood as possibly doubling the original amount of time that a person has to wait before re-registering to vote. However, the most recent attempt to completely change the law to restore voting rights to felons upon release from prison, setting our laws on par with 14 other states, was by former senator Connie Johnson (D-Oklahoma County) back in 2012. That bill was defeated in committee. Oklahoma is overdue for another reconsideration of this policy by the legislature.
Susan B. Anthony, famous 20th-century suffragette, stated that the ability to vote is not only a right for all citizens, “but the one without which all the others are nothing.” When we bar felons from voting, even after they’ve been released from prison, we limit their voice and undermine democracy more broadly. As we recently saw in the primary election, races can be decided by as little as 5 votes, so every vote matters. The practice of disenfranchisement is inherently undemocratic and counters the goal of societal reintegration of people reentering our communities after a felony conviction. It’s time for Oklahoma to take a second look at truly giving our neighbors a second chance.