Should Felons Be Able to Vote?
Billionaire businessman and former presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg drew the issue of voting rights into sharp focus in the 2020 election season. The one-time mayor of New York City shelled out $16 million of his personal fortune to pay the court fees and fines of former felons in Florida.
That meant more than 30,000 convicted felons in the Sunshine State regained the right to vote and would get to participate in the November 2020 elections. For perspective, the fateful 2000 election between George Bush and Al Gore hinged on just a few hundred votes in the State of Florida.
Many Americans are under the mistaken impression that those convicted of criminal felonies are permanently barred from voting. That’s not true. Each state decides what and how many such civil rights are stripped away and which can be restored following conviction.
So why did Bloomberg do it?
Prior to 2018, Florida was just a handful of states that permanently barred felons from voting. Advocates launched a reform campaign that was widely supported by business leaders, celebrities, athletes, and others. Florida Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, is an amendment to Florida’s constitution that was passed in November 2018.
Through this ballot measure, voters approved a process for some 1.4 million people in Florida with felony records to once again be permitted to participate in elections. Observers have called it the largest expansion of voting rights in over 50 years.
There was one major problem, however. Thousands of convicted felons still owed court fines and fees they were unable to pay, which prohibited them from voting.
Fast forward to 2020. The same group of activists that launched the original voting reform campaign set out to raise $25 million to pay for these fines and fees, $16 million of which came from Bloomberg.
Other donors and backers included musician John Legend, basketball star LeBron James, the cable TV networks MTV, Comedy Central, and VH1, ice-cream maker Ben & Jerry’s, and the entire professional sports teams of the Miami Dolphins, the Orlando Magic, and the Miami Heat.
Voter Reform Nationwide
Again, each state has its own laws about the voting rights of felons, which is confusing. For example, prisoners are allowed to cast mail-in ballots from their cells in Maine and Vermont, but Kentucky permanently bans anyone with a violent felony conviction from voting. That being said, times are a’changing.
The campaigns in Florida were part of a larger effort by advocates nationwide to end so-called “voter disenfranchisement” affecting the universe of people in the United States with felony convictions who are unable to vote.
A 2022 report by The Sentencing Project estimates that 4.6 million people in the United States are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. The report notes that “...this figure has declined by 24 percent since 2016, as more states enacted policies to curtail this practice and state prison populations declined modestly.”
In Oklahoma, the numbers are particularly pointed. The Sooner State has long-held the unwelcome title of prison capital of the world. Politicians here for decades boasted about the state’s reputation for being tough on crime. Oklahoma imprisoned more people for drug possession than anything else, and imprisoned more women than any other state.
At any given time, roughly 60,000 people in Oklahoma are actively incarcerated, under community supervision (e.g. probation or parole), or are waiting to be transferred to jails from local prisons. All of these individuals are barred from voting, which is driving more advocates to call for voting reform.
“Just because you’re convicted of a felony doesn’t mean you should lose your basic rights in the democratic process,” Brady Henderson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, told the local media in 2018. “Our position is that this shouldn’t disqualify someone from being a full citizen.”
Voter Rights for Different Convictions in Oklahoma
Not all convictions are equal. Oklahoma removes your voting rights depending on the type of charge you’ve been convicted of. The good news is that your right to vote can be eventually restored in most cases.
- Awaiting Trial: You can vote while awaiting trial for any charge, even if incarcerated (as long as a prior conviction hasn’t removed your right to vote).
- Misdemeanor Convictions in Oklahoma: You do not lose your right to vote if you are convicted of a misdemeanor and prisoners can typically vote from jail.
- Felony Convictions in Oklahoma: You lose your right to vote if you are convicted of a felony and are serving that sentence. In short, you can’t vote if you are incarcerated, on probation, or on parole. But that right is automatically restored once you complete your full sentence, have no pending charges, and have paid all restitution, court costs, fines, and fees.
Once you complete your sentence, you can register to vote and cast a ballot in the next election.
If you are incarcerated for a misdemeanor, register to vote (if necessary) and request an absentee ballot from the administrators at your facility.
If you have questions about restoring your voting rights, contact an attorney for guidance.