Can convicted felons vote? That depends on where they live and whether they have served their time.
In South Carolina, anyone convicted of a felony loses the right to vote while they are incarcerated or on parole.
But, convicted felons automatically regain their voting rights once they have completed their incarceration, parole, and probation.
Unfortunately, a lot of convicted felons don’t know this. In fact, before 2003, the state never bothered to tell people they would regain their voting rights after completing their sentence. Now, it is explained in the offender’s handbook that is given to all convicts by the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon. But is that enough?
Why Do So Many People Think Felons Can Never Vote?
How a felony conviction affects a citizen’s right to vote is determined by the states, not the federal government. All but two states bar convicted felons from voting for at least some period of time.
Different states have vastly different policies. For example:
- Twenty states have rules like South Carolina;
- Thirteen states restore convicted felons’ right to vote when they are released from prison, even if they are still on parole;
- Convicted felons in several states must petition their state’s government to have their voting rights restored;
- In other states, restoration of voting rights depends on the particular crime a felon was convicted of;
- Three states – Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky – have the most extreme policies: They prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from voting for the rest of their life; and
- Maine and Vermont allow all convicted felons to vote, even when they are still in prison.
The Blind Leading the Blind
It’s no surprise that convicted felons in SC don’t know that their voting rights are restored when they finish their sentence – a report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows that most of the state’s elections officials get it wrong when asked how convictions of any kind affect an individual’s right to vote.
The ACLU says ignorance among county officials also discourages and, in some cases, prevents ex-cons from voting – 85 percent of election officials believe that state law requires convicted felons to provide the county with documentation proving that they have completed their sentences.
But they’re wrong – state law does not require this (remember, voting rights are automatically restored after the sentence is completed).
The ACLU suggests that SC train its elections officials better, order counties to stop requiring proof of sentence completion, and directly inform convicted felons when their right to vote is restored.
Why Do State Officials Make It More Difficult for Convicted Felons to Vote?
SC’s restrictions on voting rights for felons disproportionately affects African-Americans – one out of 27 black voters in the state cannot vote because their sentence is not complete, compared with one out of 65 of all SC voters.
Voting is essential to a healthy democracy. Barring felons from voting for life hurts not only those citizens who want to start fresh and become productive citizens, but it also hurts the state, the nation, and the health of American democracy.
Failing to notify felons when their voting rights are restored and confusion among election officials as to who is eligible to vote causes the same damage – we should be removing barriers to voting, not suppressing votes.
Criminal Defense in Myrtle Beach, SC
Daniel A. Selwa is a criminal defense attorney located in Myrtle Beach, SC. If you’ve been charged with a crime in the Horry County area, call now at (843) 492-5449 or fill out our contact form online to set up a free consultation to find out how we can help.