By: Paige Topping
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.
Over the years I used to always think about freedom, you know what my freedom looked like . . . And one of the typical definitions of freedom to me was being able to vote, being able to be an active representative in my community.” This quote was made by an Arkansas native who regained his right to vote after 28 years of being disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. For him, and for many other felons, the right to vote is an integral and necessary step toward regaining their freedom and integrating into society.
Despite this, and despite the right to vote being fundamental in our democracy, over 87,000 Arkansans were denied the right to vote in the 2020 election due to a practice known as felon disenfranchisement. Felon disenfranchisement denies American citizens – persons who are otherwise eligible to vote – the right to vote simply due to felony convictions, even after they have served their sentences. While similar disenfranchisement devices such as poll taxes and literacy tests have been deemed unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court, felon disenfranchisement continues to taint the sanctity of our democracy to this day.
Currently, forty-eight states have adopted laws that disenfranchise felons. Arkansas is one of these states. Under Arkansas law, a convicted felon cannot vote until he or she is released from prison, probation, parole, and has paid all court related fines and restitution costs. This is a high bar for voting reinstatement considering that court fines and restitution costs can often range from hundreds, to hundreds of thousands of dollars. While most Arkansans would struggle paying off debts of this size, it is even harder for convicted felons who often struggle to find jobs that pay more than minimum wage when they are released.
To make things worse, even if felons are able to overcome Arkansas’s disenfranchisement requirements, they are not notified when they are eligible to vote. Thus, felons that regain their ability to vote often do not do so because they are generally not aware that their disenfranchisement has been lifted. Additionally, even if felons are aware that they are eligible to vote, they still face the challenge of obtaining all of the necessary paperwork for registration. For a felon to register to vote, they must have paperwork proving that they are no longer on probation or parole and have paid off all of their court fines and restitution costs. For felons that attempt to register to vote years after they completed probation or parole, finding the necessary paperwork can be especially challenging.
The effects of felon disenfranchisement are dire. Not only does it restrict the fundamental right to vote and reduce voter turnout, but it also disproportionately affects members of the African American community. In 2020, Arkansas ranked 50th in voter turnout. While low voter turnout can be attributed to many factors, felon disenfranchisement alone prohibited over 87,000 people – 3.9% of the eligible voting population in Arkansas – from voting. Out of those disenfranchised, 29,000 were African Americans. This means that the African American community makes up more than 33% of the entire disenfranchised population despite only making up 16% of the state population.
While proponents of felon disenfranchisement insist that disenfranchisement is necessary to protect the sanctity of the vote, it is hard not to view it as anything other than a modern-day poll tax. Despite this, the United States Supreme Court continues to uphold felon disenfranchisement, and the Arkansas legislature has made no effort to lessen its restrictions. Thus, until our government decides to free our citizens that are locked out of the vote, Arkansas citizens, our state, and our democracy will continue to suffer.