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Struggles over the expansion and contraction of voting rights have been twinned throughout American history. Efforts today to restore voting rights to formerly incarcerated people are intensely partisan. But what is the actual political effect of such actions? Do ex-felons vote? Whom do they vote for?

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According to political scientist and legal researcher Traci Burch, “Conventional wisdom assumes that in the absence of felon disfranchisement, a large number of ex-felons would have turned out to vote and that this group would have been overwhelmingly Democratic.” She quotes the head of the Alabama Republican Party: “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to [restoring voting rights] because felons don’t tend to vote Republican.”

Burch re-examines the close and highly contested Florida vote in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, notorious for its hand recount that was quashed by the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore. Burch describes her findings as “startling,” arguing that “previous research overestimates the turnout rate of Florida’s ex-felons and underestimates the share of the vote George W. Bush would have won among them.” (Emphasis in the original.)

She bases her simulated outcome on the 2000 turnout rates of ex-felons in Georgia and North Carolina and the turnout in Florida in 2008. In 2006, Florida loosened its total voting ban on ex-felons, allowing some people with minor felony convictions to vote after their sentences end.

Her study shows that “the ex-felon population in Florida would have favored Bush in 2000.” The reason: “although disfranchisement laws disproportionately affect black men, in Florida white men comprised the majority of the ex-felon population in 2000.” And white men tend to vote Republican.

Burch concludes that her findings “merely question the role electoral outcomes play as a central consideration in the debate over disfranchisement policies.” Put another way, shouldn’t re-enfranchisement be done for the principle rather than the assumed partisan gain?

In 2016, 6.1 million citizens (2.5 percent of the the voting-age population, or one person in forty) couldn’t vote because they were incarcerated or had served time. An unknown number of other people, as scholars Marc Meredith and Michael Morse write, “who come into contact with the criminal justice system are frequently misinformed about their voting rights.”

Meredith and Morse examine the effects of new voting rights notification laws in New Mexico, New York, and North Carolina. In these states, authorities are required to inform people being discharged from the criminal justice system about their voting rights. Meredith and Morse’s findings: there is “little evidence of an increase in ex-felon registration or turnout after notification laws are implemented”—approximately 10 percent of ex-felons turn out to vote in presidential elections “both before and after notification in all three states.”

One factor may have been that the official notifications were “striking for their lack of clarity”: “densely worded pamphlets” included in a mass of exit materials, given to a population that has a high percentage of people who can’t read above the grade-school level.

Meredith and Morse contrast this with a simple, one-page letter sent to individual ex-felons in Iowa. In an earlier study, they found that Iowa increased ex-felon turnout 5 to 10 percent, suggesting that it is the way such notifications are done that matters. They also note that there’s a bipartisan split on ex-felon voter notification laws at the state level: Republican legislators and governors are more likely to reject them, and Democratic legislators and governors are more likely to support them.

At best, in contested presidential elections, barely half of all voting-eligible Americans actually vote. The great partisan divide is actually between two different quarters of the population. And that’s in presidential years: Far fewer turn out for primaries, local elections, or off-year congressional elections. An awful lot of Americans have been shut out, or have shut themselves out, of the democratic process.

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The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 651, Detaining Democracy? Criminal Justice and American Civic Life (January 2014), pp. 220-249
Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science