Over a million currently and formerly incarcerated Americans have regained their right to vote since the last presidential election. Though many still face barriers to voting, like outstanding fines and fees, for some of these Americans, this November will be the first time they’ll be able to cast a ballot.

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Shannon Battle, 44, stands outside his polling place after voting in the D.C. primary on June 2. (Shannon Battle)

“Being from the nation’s capital and being able to come home and I still have the right to vote ... it’s a blessing,” said Shannon Battle, who was formerly incarcerated and is now the Congressman John Lewis Fellow at Free Minds. The fellowship pays a returning citizen to promote nonviolence and racial equity through poetry and storytelling. “Returning citizen” is the preferred term for formerly incarcerated people, and is used to de-stigmatize them while acknowledging their unique difficulties.

Battle was a juvenile when he was given a life sentence and incarcerated in 1993 for homicide. Twenty-five years later, on June 6, 2019, he was released under D.C’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act (IRAA). Battle, now 44, was able to vote in the 2020 D.C. primary, and he is eager to cast a ballot in November in his first presidential election.

“I made a commitment to myself that if ... there’s ever the opportunity [to vote] that I would take full advantage of that right,” Battle said. “I’ma vote every time I get the chance."

In 2016, more than 6 million Americans were subject to felony disenfranchisement. Since then, thousands of people have reclaimed their right to vote through executive orders and changes to state law. Last month, D.C. passed legislation to join Maine and Vermont in allowing incarcerated Americans to cast ballots.

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“There have been several reforms at the state level, changing laws or governors using their authority,” said Nicole D. Porter, advocacy director at the Sentencing Project. “There are still millions of people who are disenfranchised because of felony voting rights exclusions … including several states [that] have hundreds of thousands of people disenfranchised who live in the community on felony probation and parole.”

Disenfranchisement policies have a disproportionate effect on communities of color. In particular, Black Americans older than 18 are about four times as likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population. Black citizens account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but make up 30 percent of parolees. In total, 2.2 million Black voters are disenfranchised.

In states such as Georgia and Texas, hundreds of thousands of returning citizens on probation are excluded from voting. Most recently, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) signed an executive order to automatically restore voting rights for some felons upon completion of sentencing, re-enfranchising an estimated 40,000 Iowans.


Desmond Meade displays a copy of his voter registration form outside the Orange County Supervisor of Elections office in Orlando on Jan. 8, 2019, after registering to vote. (Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post)

In 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4, the Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative, by ballot measure, giving voting rights to most people with prior felony convictions who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation. An estimated 1.4 million voters regained their rights.

But even with these laws changing, the act of voting can still be blocked. Following the ballot initiative, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed a bill requiring that formerly convicted Americans pay all court-ordered fines before they can register to vote.

Florida is not alone in having financial roadblocks in place. In more than half of U.S. states, at least some formerly incarcerated Americans are disenfranchised because of outstanding fines, fees and restitution payments to victims. The fees vary from a $50 application fee for a public defender to thousands of dollars in restitution payments.

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A study in the American Sociological Review found that the outcome of the highly-contested George W. Bush-Al Gore presidential election probably would have been changed even if disenfranchised Americans with felony convictions in Florida had been allowed to vote.

“Watching the Gore versus Bush spectacle to have it down to Florida with the hanging chads. … It kind of gave me an understanding of how important voting was," Battle said. “After that, I always said I wish I had the opportunity to vote.”

In the 2016 presidential election, the race came down to just over 100,000 votes in a handful of states — most notably Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. At the time, more than 160,000 voters in those states were disenfranchised.

With the outbreak of the coronavirus in March, some state correction departments started taking steps to reduce the prison population by allowing early releases. In some states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, the completion of a prison sentence re-enfranchises voters, making them eligible to cast their ballots in the upcoming election even if they are still on parole.

But Battle sees a lack of education as the biggest barrier to voting because enfranchisement laws vary from state to state, and there isn’t a guarantee that currently or formerly incarcerated Americans know their rights. “Especially a lot of the younger guys that might have entered the system just think that they don’t have that right no more,” he said.


Battle, the current Congressman John Lewis Fellow at Free Minds, pays his respects to the late congressman John Lewis. (D-Ga.), who died on July 17. (Shannon Battle)

Battle, released just over a year ago, said he’s now committed to being a part of as much of the democratic process as possible — including educating his peers on their rights and volunteering at the polls.

“It’s a blessing especially [for] someone like me who always dreamed of one day voting," Battle said. “I never thought I would get the opportunity to vote. I thought that was impossible.”

Sources: Data on recent reforms from the Sentencing Project, the National Conference of State Legislatures and the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. Current law on legal financial obligations law from the Collateral Consequences Resource Center. Current disenfranchisement laws from the Brennan Center. Promo image is Washington Post illustration using photos by Shannon Battle and Rachel Wisniewski/Reuters.