Push for voting rights still leaves many former felons off state rolls

Nicole Lewis and Andrew R. Calderon

Despite efforts across the country to expand voting rights for people with felony convictions, a Marshall Project analysis of 4 key states found that none registered more than 1 in 4 eligible voters who were formerly incarcerated.

Only a fraction of the thousands of formerly incarcerated people whose voting rights were restored in time for the 2020 election made it back on to the voter rolls in four key states – Nevada, Kentucky, Iowa and New Jersey, a Marshall Project analysis found.

At least 13 states have expanded voting rights for people with felony convictions between 2016 and 2020. As a result, millions of formerly incarcerated people across the country are now eligible to vote

Yet none of the states analyzed registered more than 1 in 4 eligible voters who were formerly incarcerated. That's significantly lower than the registration rate among the general public, where almost 3 in 4 eligible voters registered in each state.

In Kentucky, about 31,000 of the 170,000 people with felony convictions successfully submitted a voting application before the last election. In Nevada, 8,633 of about 37,000 people released from prison in the past 10 years had registered. The state estimates that 77,000 formerly incarcerated became eligible to vote in 2019. In Iowa – the last state with a lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions – almost 5,000 of the estimated 45,000 affected people had registered. And in New Jersey, 83 of the roughly 2,000 people released from prison in 2019 made it back onto the voter rolls.

Devyn Roberts, 44, of Newport, Ky., runs a successful business, but she's never been able to cast a vote on any legislation that may affect her business because of felonies from 2001 and 2002 for possession of marijuana.

Devyn Roberts, 44, heard about the voting rights changes only after responding to a Marshall Project survey for newly eligible voters in Kentucky. Roberts hasn’t been eligible to vote for most of her adult life, so she hasn’t been following politics closely and didn’t know about Kentucky’s executive order restoring voting rights to some people with felony convictions.  

“We are nonvoters,” she said. “They should have told us. There should have been a commercial about this.”

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