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Why nearly 6 million Americans won't be allowed to vote for president in November

Jun 6, 2016

Sanders. Trump. Clinton. If you consume even the least bit of news then you probably know we're in the middle of a presidential election cycle, and you may be trying to decide who you're going to vote for.

But as the November election approaches, nearly 6 million Americans won't be allowed to vote at all due to their criminal records.

Felony disenfranchisement is the exclusion from voting of people otherwise eligible to vote due to felony convictions. Disenfranchisement laws vary widely from state to state.

In Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated. In 38 states and the District of Columbia - including Michigan - most felons automatically gain the right to vote when they complete their sentences. Some states restore voting rights after a certain amount of time after the completion of a sentence. And in others, a felon has to apply to have voting rights restored.

According to The Sentencing Project, of the almost 6 million people who are currently disenfranchised, 2.6 million have completed their sentences. And because of racial disparities in the criminal justice system, disparities also exist in the disenfranchised population. One in 13 African Americans has lost their voting rights, compared to 1 in 56 non-black voters.

Given current rates of incarceration, nearly one-third of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lifetime. In states that disenfranchise ex-offenders, as many as 40 percent of black men may permanently lose their right to vote.

In April, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe used his executive power to address this issue in his state, restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons who have completed their sentences and have been released from supervised probation or parole. One in 4 African-Americans in Virginia had been banned from voting due to disenfranchisement. McAuliffe said in a video from The Atlantic:

The whole genesis of what we're talking about here today goes to the core of racism in this country. Many African-Americans were being arrested early on in the southern states, so predominantly, African-Americans were the ones being charged with felonies. So the next natural extension would be, well, since we're arresting and charging all these African-Americans with felonies, what an easy way for us to keep them out of the ballot box to say felons can't vote.

The order was not well received by state Republicans, who filed a lawsuit with the Virginia Supreme Court last month. They argue McAuliffe can't legally restore rights to nearly a quarter-million felons with one sweeping order. Until now governors restored rights on a case-by-case basis. The court will take up the lawsuit in July. According to the lawsuit:

From Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson to Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell, every Governor of Virginia has understood the clemency power to authorize the Governor to grant clemency on an individualized basis only…Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans. But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.

According to The Washington PostRepublicans also call it a favor to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton, McAuliffe’s close friend and political ally, who could benefit from higher numbers of minority voters in the crucial swing state.

If the state Supreme Court disagrees with McAuliffe, he plans to issue individual restoration orders to hundreds of thousands of felons.

Millions aren't allowed to vote, but Americans want to change that. Research by YouGov found 54 percent of Americans think felons should be able to vote once they complete their sentences - including most Democrats (51%) and Republicans (53%).

What do you think? Should felons have their voting rights restored once they serve their time?