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Rachel Roth's picture

Perhaps a million women will be left on the sidelines as we celebrate 96 years of voting rights this Women’s Equality Day.

These are women affected by felony disenfranchisement laws – state laws that deny individuals convicted of felony offenses the right to vote while they are incarcerated, while they are on probation or parole, and in some cases for the rest of their lives.

In 2004, an estimated that 792,200 women could not vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws. This is up from 676,700 in 2000. At this rate of increase, at least one million women would likely be affected today.

Because race and poverty play such key roles in determining who is arrested, prosecuted, convicted, and incarcerated, it is no surprise that African American women are four times more likely than other women to have had their voting right taken away. This is a sad coda to the vital roles that African American women played in securing the right to vote.


African American men won the right to vote after the Civil War; African American women had to wait another 50 years. Although there is nothing in the language of the 15th Amendment to exclude women – “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude” – it was understood that the amendment would apply only to men.

In 1920, the 19th Amendment finally enshrined women’s right to vote in the United States Constitution. However, African American women and men were often prevented from voting by unfair registration laws, intimidation, and violence. Years of activism led Congress to adopt voting rights laws in the 1960’s, but concerns about voter suppression remain to this day.

Voting, Belonging, and Political Power

Voting is a powerful symbol and a practical means of citizenship. To take away someone’s right to vote is to say that she is no longer a part of the political community and has no say in her government.

Whether we look at South Africa or countries in the European Union, the United States stands out in extinguishing the voting rights of people with criminal convictions. In a case striking down a law that barred people in prison from voting, Canada’s highest court said,

If we accept that governmental power in a democracy flows from the citizens, it is difficult to see how that power can legitimately be used to disenfranchise the very citizens from whom the government’s power flows.

In some areas of the country, taking away so many people’s right to vote may change the outcome of elections, because those prevented from participating in the political process come from groups that tend to vote for Democratic party candidates.

Imprisonment can affect political outcomes in another significant way – by counting people in the Census district of the prison instead of their home address, rural areas gain representation and political clout in legislatures, and urban areas lose out. For example, women from Los Angeles and Oakland are sent to prison in a farming region hours away, and women from New York City are sent to prison upstate, near the border with Canada. They cannot vote while they are in these prisons and usually return to the cities where they have family and friends. But they are counted as if they are free-world residents with political access and real membership in the community where the prison is located.

Felony disenfranchisement and prison gerrymandering remind us of the work yet to be done to ensure political equality for all women.


To learn more, check out this detailed voting rights timeline.

Visit the Prison Policy Initiative for more on prisons, the Census, and democracy.

Visit the Sentencing Project for more on felony disenfranchisement.


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