The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Florida’s move to allow ex-felons to vote brings U.S. closer to international election norms

A sign outside a voting precinct in Naples, Fla., on Nov. 6, 2018. (Charlotte Kesl for The Washington Post)

For many outside observers, the U.S. midterm elections were a stark reminder of how different the American political system is from their own — and how strange it can seem in comparison. There was widespread confusion among non-Americans, for example, about how Democrats could lose Senate seats though they won more total votes.

But if the vote showed off the quirks of the U.S. electoral system, the midterm elections also took a small but notable step in bringing the American system more closely into line with international norms. And, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that step came from Florida.

On Tuesday, a clear majority of Floridians voted for a ballot initiative that could potentially restore voting rights to as many as 1.6 million ex-felons. The proposal, listed as Amendment 4 on the ballot, means that felons who have completed their full sentences would be given the vote again, with the exception of those convicted of murder or a sexual offense.

With almost all precincts reporting, the amendment passed with 64 percent in favor and 36 percent opposed.

The idea that all felons could be automatically barred from voting, with exemptions requiring individual petitions, is unusual even within the United States — only three other states (Kentucky, Iowa and Virginia) have similarly stringent laws, though many states have less extensive restrictions on felons voting. But it’s only by comparing such a ban to the practices of other developed democracies around the world a sense emerges of how out of line this policy is with international norms.

For example, take Europe. According to a 2006 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, “almost half of European countries allow all incarcerated people to vote while others disqualify only a small number of prisoners from the polls.” There are certain countries that block those currently incarcerated from voting — Britain, for example — though they largely have narrower restrictions than American states do.

What’s really different about the system in the United States, however, is that these restrictions can apply even after people convicted of felonies have served their complete sentences. In a state such as Florida, that could have meant that those convicted of a felony would lose their voting rights — even if they did not actually serve any jail time.

Globally, that is unusual — extremely unusual. Indeed, finding another country that allows a similar level of felon disenfranchisement is difficult. Armenia was once held up as the only country with restrictions that were similar, but the country amended its constitution in 2015 to allow more convicts to vote. Belgium and Luxembourg automatically restrict the vote for some convicts, but this rule applies only to those given the highest sentences — sentences that are handed out rarely when compared to the United States.

Another important practical factor means that the U.S. laws on felons voting have more impact: The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any developed nation. In fact, it’s not even close. The United States imprisons people at more than double the rate of the next closest country: Turkey. In a populous state such as Florida, this means that roughly 10 percent of the adult population is eventually barred from voting — and a considerably higher proportion of the black adult population, given higher rates of incarceration among for African Americans.

Activists and academics have long noted how strange the U.S. approach to felon disenfranchisement was when compared to other countries around the world. “We know of no other democracy besides the United States in which convicted offenders who have served their sentences are nonetheless disenfranchised for life,” Human Rights Watch wrote in a report released two decades ago. It said the United States “may have the world’s most restrictive criminal disenfranchisement laws.”

Indeed, to find a comparable system, you cannot just look over borders — you need a history book. In a 2004 paper, scholars Jeff Manza and Chistropher Uggen noted that "the closest parallels [to the U.S. system] are to various pre-modern political regimes” in Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as medieval Europe.

The American system may be a relic of another era, too. In Florida, the decision to bar ex-felons from voting dates back 150 years to the aftermath of the Civil War — historians say the motivations behind the law were openly racist, designed to stop whites from losing their political dominance to newly eligible black voters.

The U.S. electoral system is decentralized by design, with the 14th Amendment allowing each state to make its own rules about the right to vote. But the success of Amendment 4, as well as separate reenfranchisement efforts in Virginia, suggest that America might be able to iron out some of its election quirks and become more in line with other advanced democracies.

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