Trey Kay, Emily Haavik Published

Us & Them: Locked Out Of Voting?


More than 4.5 million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction but only about a quarter are currently in prison. 

On the newest episode of Us & Them, host Trey Kay talks with people who support expanded voting rights for felons, and those who say people who’ve committed crimes should forfeit their rights until they serve their entire sentence, including any probation or parole. 

Felon disenfranchisement laws differ significantly from state to state and even legal experts say it can be difficult for someone to know their rights. In a few states, a person can vote from prison, while in others, voting rights are restored upon release or completion of parole or probation. Despite recent trends to expand voting rights, some states are moving in the opposite direction. In Florida, voters passed an amendment to restore voting rights to most people with felonies, but lawmakers passed a new law requiring that people pay all of their court fees first. And in Virginia, only the governor can restore the right to vote for someone convicted of a felony. 

This episode of Us & Them is presented with support from the West Virginia Humanities Council and the CRC Foundation.

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A young adult man with red and brown dreads. He wears a black and gray hoodie with the Chicago Bulls logo and mascot on the front. His hands are in his pockets.
Anthony Cole, 32, is from Huntington, West Virginia. He was released from prison in May 2023 after serving 12 and a half years for second-degree murder.

“I started life over, I’m living as a productive citizen. I work for the food bank. I’m trying to give back to the community at the same time, as well as feed myself. Like, I’m back into society, I should be able to be a part of society … That’s what our politics and our whole system is off of. [It’s] supposed to be equality … But it feels even less than now because my voice is completely silenced in that matter.”

— Anthony Cole

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
An adult woman with blonde hair and blue eyes smiles for the camera. She wears a grey or light blue blazer and white shirt.
Sara Carter is a legal fellow with the Brennan Center, a nonprofit dedicated to civil liberties and voting rights. She tracks nationwide trends and variations in voting laws for felons from state to state. She says in some states, felons can vote no matter what crimes they’ve been convicted of — even from prison. On the other end of the spectrum, in Virginia, for example, those convicted of a felony can only restore their voting rights with an appeal to the governor.

“Everyone should be able to have a say in who governs them, and everyone should be able to be represented, no matter how they choose to exercise that right when it comes to an election.”

— Sara Carter

Photo Credit: Brennan Center for Justice
An adult woman with dark, curly hair and brown eyes smiles for the camera. She wears golden hoop earrings. She wears a gray cardigan and navy blue shirt.
Natalie Delia Deckard is an associate professor of criminology at the University of Windsor in Ontario, Canada.

“There is absolutely no way to talk about voting rights in the United States without talking about the fact that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in not only the world but in world history. We know that incarceration is not sprinkled randomly through the society, it’s not just that men are overwhelmingly more likely to have criminal records. It’s that racialized men are more likely to have criminal records, because of the ways in which we understand crime … It’s also about poverty and class. It’s poor men that go to jail, they go to prison. We absolutely know that class divisions very much predict voting divisions.”

— Natalie Delia Deckard

Photo Credit: University of Windsor
An older man with white, gray hair poses for a photo. He smiles slightly. He wears a white button up shirt and navy slacks with brown belt. Behind him is a gray chair and a bouquet of flowers in a vase on a table.
Mac Warner is West Virginia’s Secretary of State. He’s running for governor this year as a Republican.

“They have violated the state code, they have committed a criminal offense. And they have shown that they are not worthy at that time, they’ve done something to go against the people of the state of West Virginia. And so we wouldn’t want people who are committing crimes to then be a part of a system that would allow them to vote for someone who may then decide to change and say, ‘These criminal offenses are OK.’ It serves as a deterrent value. So people know that they lose those rights when they commit an offense. And, again, this is just part of the criminal justice system. We all want them to be a part of society, again, with voting rights, but we want them to serve their time for the crime that they committed. There is no effort to suppress votes or to keep somebody from voting.”

— Mac Warner, West Virginia’s Secretary of State

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A middle aged adult man smiles for a photo. He wears a gray suit and slacks, a red and blue tie, and he has a pin on his lapel. Behind him, there is an American flag and a room that looks like an office.
Mike Stuart was the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia. He currently serves in the West Virginia State Senate and is running for state attorney general.

“I know that we live in a period of time, where there’s a heavy emphasis on criminal rights. I support that, too. We’ve got to make sure we treat folks humanely, that we try to be in the business of rehab and rehabilitation and treatment, especially when it comes to the drug scourge. But I’m focused on victims. …I fully support the idea of the restoration of rights, but after you’ve served your entire penance, to society … and that means … not only your time behind bars, but your period of supervised release, if there’s a period of probation, it’s at the end of that entirety, that you ought to get the restoration of rights. West Virginia already does this today. I just think I’m one of those folks that truly believe that there’s a purpose to punishment, we don’t do it to hurt people. We do it for the rehabilitation part … they’re not part-time, or lesser citizens because they don’t have the right to vote. And we didn’t take that right from them. They took it from themselves when they committed the heinous crime, whatever crime it happened to be.”

— Mike Stuart, WV State Senator

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting
A young adult woman with brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and glasses. She holds up a yellow card for the camera and tilts her head to the side slightly. She wears an olive green sweatshirt that reads, "Made in the 80s."
Autumn McCraw was born and raised in West Virginia. She says she used drugs for several years and spent more than two and a half years in prison for felony convictions. After she was released from her most recent incarceration, she went to a recovery residence. She says she hasn’t used drugs in over six years. After she was released from parole, she registered to vote and decided to laminate her voter registration card.

“I opened the card … and I held it in my hand, and I just looked at it and I’m like, ‘I have arrived.’ It was a really emotional moment for me. I cried because I felt like I belonged again. Like I can contribute again. Like this is my ticket back into the forefront of society and not just necessarily in the shadows or in the underbelly.”

— Autumn McCraw

Photo Credit: Trey Kay/West Virginia Public Broadcasting