SINCE THE mid-1980s, about half the states have changed their laws to expand voting rights for convicted felons, generally those who have already served their sentences. Yet until recently, the number of convicts shut out of the polls soared anyway, a product largely of the nation’s enthusiasm for locking up even nonviolent criminals. Virtually no Western democracy disenfranchises so many of its citizens as the United States — and a hugely disproportionate number of those barred from voting are Black.

Against that dispiriting backdrop, there is finally a ray of good news: In this presidential election year, for the first time in decades, the number of Americans disenfranchised owing to a felony conviction has fallen, to about 5.2 million, nearly a million fewer than in 2016. About a quarter of them remain behind bars; the rest are ex-convicts who remain deprived of their full rights even though they are no longer incarcerated.

Those figures, contained in a new study by the nonpartisan Sentencing Project, reflect an encouraging recent trend; they also suggest how deep a hole remains for many ensnared in the criminal justice system. In parts of the Deep South and a few other states, more than 1 in 7 African Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction. In Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, more than 8 percent of all adults are shut out from the polls because of felony convictions. Nationally, the number of past and present convicts stripped of voting rights has grown nine times faster than the population as a whole since 1976.

Texas and Georgia shattered records this week on their first days of early voting. The Washington Post's Amy Gardner explains what’s behind the long lines. (The Washington Post)

Then there’s Florida, where a Republican crusade to deprive citizens of the vote is its own special disgrace. In the Sunshine State alone, some 1.1 million felons are barred from the polls, including 900,000 who are no longer behind bars. For that, blame the efforts of GOP state lawmakers for successfully reversing the intent of nearly two-thirds of Floridians who voted in a referendum to restore former felons’ voting rights in 2018.

Nationwide, roughly 6.2 percent of Black adults have been disenfranchised, nearly four times the share of other Americans similarly barred from the polls. Add that to the evidence of the structural and systemic racism that remains a stubborn feature of the nation’s troubled history of voting rights.

Still, there is reason for optimism. Throughout the Northeast and most of the Midwest, those who have lost the vote are limited mainly to current inmates. In the past few years, a Republican governor in Iowa and Democratic governors in Kentucky and Virginia have issued executive orders restoring the vote to most ex-convicts who have completed their sentences. The trajectory is encouraging even among Blacks, the disenfranchised share of whom has fallen by about a quarter since 2004.

In the march toward a more perfect union — one in which those who have paid their debt to society are made whole — progress remains halting. But at least there is progress.

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