Democracy at Crossroads: Addressing Minority Disenfranchisement in the 2024 Election

Amelia Shaffer, May 18, 2024

America is a representative democracy: everyone has the right to participate in government and have a voice through the means of their vote. Well, almost everyone. In the 2020 election, 5.1 million Americans could not vote due to felony convictions [1] and over 20 million U.S. citizens did not have the qualifying government-issued photo identification to be eligible to vote in some states [2]. These policies of felony disenfranchisement and restrictive voter ID laws disproportionately impact people of color who are overrepresented in the prison population and are less likely to possess acceptable forms of identification. While this racially targeted disenfranchisement can be traced as far back as Jim Crow-era policies, there has been a dramatic increase in restrictive voter laws leading up to the 2024 election, posing a particular challenge for Democrats who rely on minority voters as part of their majority coalitions. In order to combat the disenfranchisement of the Democratic base and promote a more inclusive democracy, legislation such as the Democracy Restoration Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, which aim to restore voting rights to countless Americans, must be passed. With tactics of voter suppression such as felony disenfranchisement and restrictive voter identification laws permeating the American voting system and jeopardizing Democrats’ political success in 2024, it is critical to pass legislation that restores, protects, and expands voting rights for all Americans. 


Felony disenfranchisement, which is the temporary or permanent suspension of voting rights for individuals convicted of criminal offenses, affects one out of every 44 Americans today [3]. This phenomenon can be traced as far back as ancient Athens and Rome where criminals would suffer a “civic death,” in which their right to vote and participate in government activity, was revoked [4]. Years later in 1792, Kentucky became the first state in America to include criminal disenfranchisement in its state constitution with all subsequent states following suit. While the 1965 Voting Rights Act eliminated Jim Crow practices that prevented non-Whites from voting, various state Supreme Courts quickly upheld the constitutionality of criminal disenfranchisement. Today, while only Maine and Vermont maintain no felony disenfranchisement policies, 22 states restrict the right to vote while in prison, 15 states restrict voting while in prison, parole, and probation, and 11 states restrict voting while in prison, parole, probation, and post-sentence [5]. 


Due to biased practices such as racial profiling, the cash bail system, and mandatory minimum sentencing, people of color disproportionately engage with the carceral system and are subsequently the most disenfranchised population. For instance, one in every 13 African Americans of voting age cannot vote due to felony disenfranchisement, which is five times the disenfranchisement rate of all other Americans [6]. Additionally, African Americans are almost six times more likely and Hispanics are over three times more likely to be incarcerated than Whites, due to the inherent racism embedded in policies that define the justice system [7]. This phenomenon that incarcerates people of color at disproportionate rates and subsequently restricts their right to vote renders many minority communities voiceless in the democratic system. 


Similarly to felony disenfranchisement, restrictive voter ID laws likewise disproportionately suppress minority voters. Voter identification laws range from no documents required to vote to strict photo IDs required. While 72% of states require identification at the polls and 7 states have strict voter ID laws, 7% of U.S. citizens do not have qualifying government-issued photo identification [8]. The majority of this population is from marginalized communities, including people of color: while only 5% of White individuals lack a government-issued photo ID, 13% of voting-aged African Americans do not have the photo IDs necessary for voting [9]. Additionally, studies have shown that minority voters are more likely to have their IDs questioned at voting sites compared to White voters. While supporters of voter identification laws argue that they help to eliminate instances of voter fraud and promote faith in the election process, opponents emphasize that it does not deter fraud and only implement unnecessary voter accessibility issues. Restrictive voter ID laws prevent a large portion of the population from expressing their voice and participating in the democratic process, particularly impacting marginalized communities of color.


With the 2024 election on the horizon, 2023 was marked by a near-record number of new restrictive voting laws passed by state legislatures. For example, in the first five months of 2023 alone, 11 states enacted 13 restrictive laws, six of which implemented stricter photo ID requirements for voter registration or in-person voting [10]. By October 2023, there were 14 new restrictive laws in place, which exceeds the total number of restrictive laws passed in any year of the past decade besides 2021 [11]. Scholars suggest that this surge was in part prompted by questions of electoral integrity following the 2020 election, in which Trump and many of his supporters encouraged the idea that the election was illegitimate and “stolen.” While an increase in new expansive voter laws accompanied the wave of restrictions in some states, voters in many key battleground states will face new restrictions ahead of the 2024 election. 


For example, in North Carolina, voters who had no photo ID requirements in the past must navigate new voter ID restrictions that include one of the country's strictest mail ballot ID laws and new ID requirements for in-person voting [12]. In the 2020 election, incumbent Republican Donald Trump secured North Carolina’s electoral votes with only a 1.35% margin of victory, demonstrating the decisive nature of every vote. With voter restrictions proven to decrease voter turnout, especially among minority communities, voter restrictions in swing states are especially harmful to the Democratic party which relies on minority voters. Though Joe Biden lost North Carolina in the 2020 election, exit polls demonstrate that he received significant support from Black voters, a trend evident across many swing states [13]. The same theme is apparent in Georgia where several new voter restrictions were implemented, including new ID requirements. Like North Carolina, the 2020 margin of victory in Georgia was only 0.3%, with Democrats securing the necessary votes in part due to the increased turnout from Black voters. North Carolina and Georgia are only two examples of new voter restrictions in swing states that will pose challenges for Democrats ahead of the 2024 election: other key battleground states such as New Hampshire and Wisconsin have likewise implemented similar restrictive practices. As Democrats continue to rely on minority groups to help form their winning coalitions, increased voter suppression tactics from 2020 to 2024, especially in notable swing states, threaten an upcoming victory for the Democratic candidate. 


There are various ways to combat minority disenfranchisement and subsequently help Democrats win the presidency in 2024, including passing legislation in Congress. Firstly, the Democracy Restoration Act of 2023, H.R.4987, aims to ensure the federal voting rights of all people upon release from prison. The act has undergone multiple iterations, with the first introduction in 2008 and the most recent introduction in 2023, and has been considered in multiple committee hearings but has repeatedly failed to get the necessary support due to the polarizing nature of criminal justice reform and its staunch opposition from Republicans. As discussed previously, 26 states restrict voting rights upon release from prison, 11 of which extend these restrictions past parole and probation and into post-sentencing. This means that in states like Florida, for example, felons may lose their voting rights indefinitely, and while Florida is not a consistent swing state, its vote in the last 5 elections was determined by less than 3 points [14]. Additionally, in Florida, Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of White people, providing a clear example of how racial minorities are overrepresented in the prison system, subsequently lose their right to vote while imprisoned, and face additional constraints in reclaiming their right to vote once they have completed their sentence [15]. 


The Democracy Restoration Act seeks to counter this cycle and reinstate voting rights for those who have completed their sentences, noting that the right of a U.S. citizen to vote should not be “denied or abridged because that individual has been convicted of a criminal offense” [16]. Grounded in the constitutional pillars of fairness and equal protection, this bill promotes the idea that voting is one of the most fundamental rights of American citizenship. It emphasizes the lack of a universal standard for voting rights across all 50 states, highlighting that while felons may be able to regain their voting rights in one state easily, they may face immense challenges regaining this right in other states. This discrepancy, coupled with the fact that state disenfranchisement laws disproportionately impact racial and ethnic minorities, constitutes the majority sentiment of the bill. 


This bill is imperative as it would undoubtedly help to restore the voting rights and subsequently the voices of countless disenfranchised individuals, many of whom are from minority communities who repeatedly face barriers in American democracy. While some opponents to the bill argue that restoring voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals jeopardizes public safety, research reinforces that disenfranchising those convicted of felonies does not decrease crime, and some studies even highlight that re-enfranchisement decreases the likelihood of recidivism, or returning to prison [17]. Additionally, while some critics argue that the restriction of voting rights is a necessary punishment for violating the social contract upon which American democracy was formed, disenfranchising individuals is more of a power-stripping tactic than a legitimate punishment. As the bill does not restore voting rights to individuals who are actively incarcerated, it maintains some degree of punishment for those who commit crimes and therefore mitigates potential objections that emphasize that active criminals should not play a role in the law-making process. 


Guaranteeing the restoration of all voting rights to convicted criminals upon release not only promotes a more inclusive democratic process, aids in societal reintegration, and reduces recidivism, but would likewise undoubtedly help Democrats who consistently rely on minority voters. Consequently, Republican forces who have historically opposed voting rights expansions have stood as obstacles to the bill’s passing. Since its first introduction over a decade ago, the bill has repeatedly faced challenges moving forward in Congress. While most Democrats champion restoring voting rights, Republicans remain firmly opposed to the expansion as it mobilizes a Democratic base and therefore serves as a salient threat to their future electoral victories, including the 2024 election. 


Additionally, another bill that would help to mitigate modern-day voter suppression is the Freedom to Vote Act, H.R. 1, an amended version of the previously proposed For the People Act. This bill was first introduced in 2019, then again in 2021, and most recently in 2023. Due to the strong opposition to the more progressive For the People Act, the Freedom to Vote Act serves as compromise legislation for some moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats. Despite notable concessions in areas such as automatic voter registration, early voting, and voting by mail, the bill maintains a myriad of provisions aimed at protecting and expanding voting rights, including restoring voting rights to all felons who have completed their prison terms and mitigating restrictive voter identification laws. Notably, the bill would establish standards for acceptable forms of voter identification to reduce discrepancies across states and allow for a wider variety of acceptable forms of ID [18]. By permitting a broader range of acceptable forms of identification to validate a voter’s identity, this bill effectively combats strict voter identification requirements that actively disenfranchise groups such as racial minorities. 


It is likewise important to note that Republicans strongly oppose this bill and have made numerous attempts to prevent its passing. In 2021, for example, Senator Ted Cruz falsely alleged that the bill would register millions of non-citizens [19], and Senator Mike Lee even stated that the bill was “as if written in Hell by the Devil himself” [20]. Senate Republicans killed the bill in 2020, blocked it with the filibuster again in 2021, and in 2022 it failed to invoke cloture after a 50-50 party-line vote. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell even labeled the bill a “one-sided power grab” by the Democratic party, illustrating how voter expansion is a threat to the Republican party [21]. This bill would ultimately solidify the Democrat’s winning coalitions by eliminating barriers to voting for minority groups that consistently support the Democratic party. 


There are countless instances of modern-day voter suppression that permeate American democracy. Felony voting restrictions effectively disenfranchise countless Americans, leaving racial minorities uniquely disadvantaged due to their overrepresentation in the prison system. Similarly, strict voter ID laws target groups that face greater difficulty acquiring the necessary identification materials, which are largely racial and ethnic minority groups. Additionally, many of the individuals who encounter voter suppression tactics are typically those who would vote for Democrats, as Democrats continuously rely on support from racial minority groups. 


Since the 2020 election which catalyzed a sentiment of election fraud and corruption, there has been a notable spike in states enacting more restrictive voter laws, many of which are in key battleground states. As the 2024 election approaches, the Democratic party must work to combat these restrictions to secure the presidency in what appears to be another Trump-Biden face-off. One of the most feasible and effective ways to do so would be to push legislation that protects and expands voting rights, such as the Democracy Restoration Act and the Freedom to Vote Act, both of which are significantly opposed by Republican forces. Through working to restore felony voting rights post-sentencing and expanding the scope of acceptable forms of identification needed to vote, both of these acts are imperative toward ensuring that America truly provides all citizens with the right to express their voice, and the right to vote. 


[1] Maxouris, Christina. “More than 5 million people with felony convictions can't vote in this year's election, advocacy group finds.” CNN, 2020.

[2] “Block the Vote: How Politicians are Trying to Block Voters from the Ballot Box | ACLU.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2021.

[3] “Historical Timeline.” Britannica, 2023.

[4] “Historical Timeline.”

[5] Uggen, Christopher, Ryan Larson, Sarah Shannon, and Robert Stewart. “Locked Out 2022: Estimates of People Denied Voting Rights – The Sentencing Project.” The Sentencing Project, 2022.

[6] Kelley, Erin. “Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History.” Brennan Center for Justice, 2017.

[7] “Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the U.S. Criminal Justice System – The Sentencing Project.” The Sentencing Project, 2018.

[8] “Oppose Voter ID Legislation - Fact Sheet.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2011.

[9] “Oppose Voter ID Legislation.”

[10] “Voting Laws Roundup: June 2023.” Brennan Center for Justice, 2023.

[11] “Voting Laws Roundup.”

[12] Avore, Liz. “Battleground 2024: How Swing States Changed Voting Rules After the 2020 Election.” Voting Rights Lab, 2023.

[13] De Pinto, Jennifer, and Fred Backus. “Exit poll analysis: Which voters supported Biden or Trump in Georgia and North Carolina?” CBS News, 2020.

[14] “What are the current swing states, and how have they changed over time?” USAFacts, 2023.

[15] Jenkins, Madison, Eric Petterson, and Brandon Smith. “A Look at Florida Corrections.” Levin College of Law, 2023.

[16] “S.481 - 117th Congress (2021-2022): Democracy Restoration Act of 2021.”

[17] Sarai, Tamar. “Felon re-enfranchisement restores more than civil rights.” Prism Reports, 2022.

[18] “Klobuchar, Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Protect the Freedom to Vote and Strengthen Our Democracy.” Senator Amy Klobuchar, 2023.

[19] Dale, Daniel. “Fact check: Ted Cruz falsely claims Democrats’ voting bill is intended to register millions of undocumented immigrants.” CNN, 2021.

[20] Folley, Aris. “Mike Lee says 'For the People' voting bill is 'as if written in hell by the devil himself.'” The Hill, 2021.

[21] “The Democrat Politician Protection Act.” Remark | Remarks | THE NEWSROOM | Republican Leader, 2019.